Much of this data was collected before 2016, and outside of the United States. In other words, says Norbert Schwarz, one of the study authors and a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, “this is definitely not a Trump effect. But if you did it right now, liberals might find life even less meaningful than before.”
The differences, granted, were pretty small. Being a conservative, the paper found, only influences the level of meaning you find in your life a small amount—roughly the same as income and physical health influence your sense of meaning. Think of it this way: switching from being a moderate liberal to being a moderate conservative is similar to making $90,000 rather than $60,000, in terms of how much meaning it adds to your life, says David B. Newman, one of the study’s other authors.
This small effect size means that most people won’t be able to predict a person’s sense of meaning in life just from knowing that person’s political orientation, said Robert Mather, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma who has described himself as conservative. But, “from the perspective of a social-psychology researcher, it is a real effect that should be further studied.”
This finding might strike some people as intuitive: “Meaning,” similar to “family” and “values,” seems like kind of a conservative word. Many conservatives, especially social conservatives, see the promise of human life in the smallest bundle of cells. At the height of the culture wars over gay marriage, they believed marriage had sanctity, and they wanted to preserve it.
Past studies have also shown that conservatives tend to be happier than liberals. Republicans are happier in their marriages. Similarly, this current study also found that economic, but not social, conservatives were more satisfied with their lives.
Conservatives also tend to do the kinds of things that lead to happiness, like getting married and having children and, yes, going to church. Even though this study accounted for religiosity, social connections like the kind we make at houses of worship make us feel happy.
But here, we’re talking about more than happiness. We’re talking about the kind of mind-blowing, double-rainbow-seeing, oneness with the universe that some past studies have found is actually more important than regular old cheeriness. Why might conservatives feel more of this?
Any discussion of “conservatives” and “liberals” is going to reduce both down to caricatures, so let’s just state, for the record, that not all conservatives write “Christ follower” in their Twitter bios and not all liberals hate God and love composting. Social conservatives, Schwarz says, tend to think the world is the way it ought to be. They’re more resistant to cultural change, such as the transgender-rights movement. Liberals, meanwhile, are often evaluating why things just don’t seem right, why the lives of some people aren’t as good as those of others. “Once you start questioning things, a lot of stuff is up for consideration,” Schwarz says. The world tends to be less meaningful to people who think tradition is unimportant and everything can—and possibly should—change on a dime.