Why Conservatives Find Life More Meaningful Than Liberals

It has nothing to do with Trump.

A woman and daughter dressed patriotically bow their heads in prayer
Texas delegation member Julie Brenner and her 7-year-old daughter bow their heads in prayer at the 2008 Republican National Convention. (John Gress / Reuters)

Polarization has become so severe that what news you read, who you marry, and what kind of car you drive is connected to your political persuasion. And so is, it turns out, whether you see the point in literally anything.

In a new study of people in 16 different countries, researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of Utah found that conservatives reported feeling there was more meaning and purpose in life than liberals did.

The authors performed a series of five studies, all of which replicated each others’ findings. Conservatives found life more meaningful in data sets from several countries in the early 1980s, in a nationally representative data set of Americans in 2007, and in data collected between 2010 and 2017. In other data sets, conservatives found greater meaning in life when the measures were taken at the end of every day for two weeks. They were also more likely to feel that their lives had “a clear sense of purpose” at any given moment.

In another analysis, the authors found social, rather than economic, conservatives were especially likely to find meaning in life. This was true even when controlling for their “religiosity,” which means it wasn’t just that conservatives had a more ardent belief in God.

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.

“If you’re a person who has a clear sense of where they belong in society, and you’re a person who essentially looks to the past to established ways of living, it seems like a very short step to perceiving life as more ordered and meaningful,” said Colin Holbrook, a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California at Merced.

Others agreed that this, shall we call it, “the way things ought to be” hypothesis has some merit.

“Conservatives are more likely to have the sense that there’s an order in their life, and a commitment to order gives people a sense of meaning as well,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “To flip it, conservatives might be missing some nuances. For liberals, the capacity to see the gray in life might be valuable in some sense, but also not give them as clear a sense of meaning.”

Conservatives also tend to be more “self-enhancing” than liberals are, says Peter Ditto, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine. They tend to talk up how great their lives are and downplay their struggles. But it’s liberals who actually act happier, even if they say they aren’t, Ditto says. He found in a study that people affiliated with Democratic causes are more likely to show a genuine “Duchenne” smile—a “smile with your eyes,” as Tyra would say—and to use positive words in their speech.

Then again, Ditto speculated, “the bar for meaning-in-life might just be lower for conservatives.” Ouch.

And that’s the central problem in studies like these: People start to see them through the lens of their own political views. Any finding can be twisted to make your team seem smarter, better, and more moral, and the other like a bunch of ignorant ghouls. Even the scales that are used to measure traits like authoritarianism or happiness or meaning in life can be colored by the researcher’s own political persuasion. “Political psychology often devolves into something that looks a lot like politics: Which one is better?” Ditto says.

But the labels “liberal” and “conservative” don’t actually mean that much right at this current moment. These days, Democrats are rooting for George W. Bush appointee Robert Mueller, and the nation’s most prominent conservative is questioning the justice system. “All these measures are from before everything went upside down and sideways,” Holbrook says. Holbrook pointed out that even asking someone if they’re socially conservative is a somewhat inaccurate measure. It would have been better, he thinks, to ask the participants if they’re, say, opposed to abortion.

If anything, this study seems like a reminder that the traits either party is stereotyped as representing—openness and analysis paralysis, in the case of liberals; sentimental traditionalism, in the case of conservatives—aren’t necessarily good things in every context. “Maybe [liberals] shouldn’t be so open to changing things, because a more vigilant attitude might be the better one,” Holbrook posited. He pointed out that Winston Churchill was by some measures quite conservative; his nationalism, for example, was evident in how he zealously promoted the British empire at the expense of its former colonies. But you have to hand it to him—he knew how to spot a Nazi, long before many others did.