WASHINGTON -- To bemused conservatives, it looks like yet another example of analytic overkill by the intelligentsia -- a jobs program for the (mostly liberal) academic boys (and girls) in the social sciences, whose quantitative tools have been brought to bear to prove the obvious.
A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that conservatives are happier than liberals -- in all income groups. While 34 percent of all Americans call themselves "very happy,'' only 28 percent of liberal Democrats (and 31 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats) do, compared to 47 percent of conservative Republicans. This finding is niftily self-reinforcing: It depresses liberals.
Election results do not explain this happiness gap. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the survey began in 1972. Married people and religious people are especially disposed to happiness, and both cohorts vote more conservatively than does the nation as a whole.
People in the Sun Belt -- almost entirely red states -- have sunnier dispositions than Northerners, which could have as much to do with sunshine as with conservatism. Unless sunshine makes people happy, which makes them conservative.
Such puzzles show why social science is not for amateurs. Still, one cannot -- yet -- be prosecuted for committing theory without a license, so consider a few explanations of the happiness gap.
Begin with a paradox: Conservatives are happier than liberals because they are more pessimistic. Conservatives think the book of Job got it right ("Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward''), as did Adam Smith ("There is a great deal of ruin in a nation''). Conservatives understand that society in its complexity resembles a giant Calder mobile -- touch it here and things jiggle there, and there, and way over there. Hence conservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is: The unintended consequences of bold government undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended ones.
Conservatives' pessimism is conducive to their happiness in three ways. First, they are rarely surprised -- they are right more often than not about the course of events. Second, when they are wrong they are happy to be so. Third, because pessimistic conservatives put not their faith in princes -- government -- they accept that happiness is a function of fending for oneself. They believe that happiness is an activity -- it is inseparable from the pursuit of happiness.