April 1, 2008

Do Your Enemies Make You Happy?

The Economist reports on recently-published polimetric research to the effect that Americans who self-identify as “conservative” also self-identify as “happy” more often than do those who self-identify as “liberal.” He attributes this to the fact that these people are more likely to have children and more likely to go to church, and apparently having children and having religion makes people feel happy. But also, he notes that those who self-identify as “very conservative” and “very liberal” also self-identify as “happy” more often than those who identify as just “conservative” or “liberal,” respectively. Secular middle-of-the-roaders self-identify as “happy” least of all. What exactly do the poll respondents mean by “happy”? It’s tempting to assume that these people equate “happiness” with “pleasure.” But the result seems instead to refer to “emotional satisfaction.” For instance, “Extremists are happy, Mr. Brooks reckons, because they are certain they are right. Alas, this often leads them to conclude that the other side is not merely wrong, but evil. Some two-thirds of America's far left and half of the far right say they dislike not only the other side's ideas, but also the people who hold them.” So for these people, part of their global picture of overall happiness is having enemies. So, does having enemies produce happiness? Does this explain our propensity to politically polarize, to divide up into ever-smaller religious denominations – because doing so generates the emotional satisfaction of being right?

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