“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Of the many ideas from Eastern religion and philosophy that have permeated Western thinking, the second “noble truth” of Buddhism arguably shines the greatest light on our happiness—or lack thereof. Samudaya, as this truth is also known, teaches that attachment is the root of human suffering. To find peace in life, we must be willing to detach ourselves and thus become free of sticky cravings.
This requires that we honestly examine our attachments. What are yours? Money, power, pleasure, prestige? Dig deeper: Just maybe, they are your opinions. The Buddha himself named this attachment and its terrible effects more than 2,400 years ago in the Aṭṭhakavagga Sutta, when he is believed to have said, “Those attached to perception and views roam the world offending people.” More recently, the Vietnamese Buddhist sage Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote in his book Being Peace, “Humankind suffers very much from attachment to views.”
As the election season heats up, many Americans are attached to their opinions—especially their political ones—as if they were their life’s savings; they obsess over their beliefs like lonely misers, and lash out angrily when they are threatened. This is the source of much suffering, for the politically obsessed and everyone else.
Fortunately, there are solutions.
Little research has been conducted on the direct links between happiness and one’s attention to politics. The indirect evidence, however, is not encouraging. For example, Dutch researchers in 2017 conducted a study on how hard news that tends to provide a political perspective affects well-being. They found that on average, well-being falls 6.1 percent for every additional television hard news program watched a week. They explained this by noting the dominance of negative stories on such programs, and the powerlessness viewers might feel in the face of all that bad news. It’s difficult to imagine that stories about political news in America would have any less of a negative impact—especially given how fraught and contentious United States politics is now.
In an attempt to see more clearly how attention to politics is directly associated with life satisfaction, I conducted an analysis using 2014 data from the General Social Survey. After controlling for household income, education, age, gender, race, marital status, and political views, I found that people who were “very interested in politics” were about 8 percentage points more likely to be “not very happy” about life than people who were “not very interested” in politics.
The Dutch researchers’ point about negativity and powerlessness might play a role here, but something even more important might be happening. I believe that today’s partisan climate, media polarization, and constant political debates are interfering directly with the fuel of happiness, which is love.
To begin with, our growing focus on politics is driving what social scientists call “political homophily,” which means assortative mating by political viewpoint. Scholars studying online dating profiles find that political views are comparable in importance to education levels in choosing one’s romantic partner. Presumably, this reflects a growing belief that people’s votes are a proxy for their character and morals. Right or wrong, this is a joy killer: If politics is so important as to preclude romantic love where it otherwise might have blossomed, happiness will fall as a result.
Parents might also contribute to this amorous sorting. Three decades ago, when I was on a path to marriage, I don’t remember my mom and dad asking about my future wife’s political views. And traditionally, that wasn’t too important for most parents in America. In 1958, according to a Gallup Poll, 33 percent of parents who were Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat; 25 percent of Republican parents wanted their daughters to marry a Republican. Not so in recent years: Those numbers were 60 and 63 percent, respectively, in 2016. I suspect they are even higher in 2020.
Friendships and family ties are compromised by political disagreements as well. Polling data have shown that about one in six Americans stopped talking to a friend or family member because of the 2016 election. No doubt these were mostly cases where friends and family disagree. But even when people agree politically, expressing intense views, or going on and on about politics, harms relationships. A 2018 data analysis in the journal Political Opinion Quarterly revealed that “even strong partisans dislike too much political discussion—even agreeable discussion.”
And beware especially of in-laws: To quote the researchers, “many people do not want their child to marry someone from their own party if that hypothetical in-law were to discuss politics frequently.” In other words, these days you need to have the right politics for your beloved’s folks, but you can’t be too intense about it. It’s a bit of a high-wire act.
The research doesn’t reveal precisely why we tend to dislike overly political people, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess that constant foam-flecked political outrage makes one quite tedious. It also impedes our ability to think clearly: At least one experiment has shown that people become less accurate in interpreting data when the data concern something politically polarizing. And lest you think you are immune to this bias if you are sophisticated with data, the research shows that highly numerate people are the most likely to contort the numbers to fit their views.
Finally, retreating too far into one’s own political bubble makes one more ignorant of the world. A 2012 survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University asked a sample of Americans about their news-consumption habits, and quizzed them about U.S. and international political and economic events. They found that those watching the most partisan television news sources—on both the left and the right—were often less knowledgeable about world events than those who consumed no news at all.
This rings starkly true to me. Whether partisan news sources can misinform us or not, they shrink our world. By engorging the political, they crowd out nearly everything else; they create a kind of tunnel vision that makes it easy to equate “news” with “politics” and pay little attention to what’s happening in other realms. And thus we become more boring.
In sum, if you spend the election season glued to your favorite partisan news outlet, read and share political outrage on social media, and use every opportunity to fulminate about politics, you might become less happy, less well-liked, less accurate, and less informed.
I am not advocating for everyone to stop paying attention to politics, of course. Good citizens are attentive and active in the political process. However, for quality of life’s sake—yours and others’—you would do well to put boundaries around the time and emotional energy you devote to politics this fall. To this end, I have three suggestions.
1. Get involved instead of complaining.
Earlier this year, the political scientist Eitan Hersh argued in The Atlantic that highly educated people who consume a ton of political news are making true progress harder in this country. Their appetite for constant indignation fuels an outrage-industrial complex in media and politics, and likely makes compromise harder.
“What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football,” Hersh wrote. He recommends active, local citizenship: getting involved in your community and working with others to push for positive change instead of just watching cable TV and ranting about it. Hersh recommends this for the good of the country; I recommend it for the good of your mental health and relationships.
2. Ration your consumption of politics and limit the time you spend discussing it.
A key characteristic of addictive behavior is the displacement of human relationships by the object of addiction. A good way to gauge whether you have a problem is to ask: Is this activity a complement to my relationships, or a substitute? In the case of politics, for many people, an honest answer would clearly be the latter; hence the willingness to damage friendships and romances.
The solution is to ration your consumption of politics, and set proper boundaries around where you talk about it. I recommend limiting the consumption of all news—not just politics—to 30 minutes a day, unless news is your vocation. Much more than that and you might just be upsetting, rather than informing, yourself, or at least becoming one of Hersh’s “hobbyists.” Further, resolve to avoid political discussions during most nonpolitical occasions. It may be hard at first, but I’d wager that eventually you will savor the respite, especially during election season, when politics is everywhere.
3. Turn off ultra-partisan news sources, especially on your own side.
In 2017, the website The Onion introduced a satirical current-events talk show called You’re Right. In it, the host feeds viewers their own beliefs and biases, assuring them that they are right and that those who disagree are stupid and evil.
It’s a parody, of course, but it captures a real reason why people often turn to partisan news sources: It brings emotional satisfaction to hear experts and famous people saying things you agree with, and denouncing those with whom you disagree. But this has deleterious effects on your relationships, and leaves you poorly informed. Once you step away for a while, you’ll most likely start to realize how much of your energy it was consuming, and how much better you feel without these influences.
The fall is going to be rough, politically. The election will be brutal and bitter; there’s no way to avoid this. But Americans have to decide whether we want our own lives to be brutal and bitter as well. Each of us has political views, many of them strongly held. Each of us is convinced that we are right—and some of us might well be. But if we let these views dominate our thoughts, our time, and our conversations, they will harm our relationships and happiness. We can be happier if, sometimes, we follow the Buddha and just let our opinions go.
Especially with the in-laws.