One well-established finding of social science research is that conservatives report being happier than liberals. Over the years, researchers have come up with a bunch of theories to explain this phenomenon.
The first explanation is that conservatives are more likely to take part in activities linked to personal happiness — such as being married and actively participating in a religious community. The second explanation is that of course conservatives are happier; they are by definition more satisfied with the established order of things.
The third explanation, related to the second, is that on personality tests liberals tend to score higher on openness to experience but also higher on neuroticism. People who score high on neuroticism are vigilant against potential harms, but they also have to live with a lot of negative emotions — such as sadness and anxiety.
I’ve paid only casual attention to these debates over the years, mostly because, during the Barack Obama years, for example, liberals didn’t seem sad. Massive crowds of young Democrats were chanting “Yes We Can!” at Obama campaign rallies built around hope and change. Audiences thrilled to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” an optimistic, celebratory and multiracial account of America’s founding. There was an assumption of confidence — America is moving forward, the arc of history bends toward justice.
Gradually, that atmosphere changed. First, smartphones and social media emerged and had a negative effect on the nation’s psyche, especially among the young. Then the election of Donald Trump darkened the national mood, on right and left.
Young liberals were hit especially hard. A 2021 study by Catherine Gimbrone, Lisa M. Bates, Seth J. Prins and Katherine M. Keyes looked at the emotional states of 12th grade students between 2005 and 2018. Liberal girls experienced a surge in depressive symptoms. Liberal boys weren’t far behind. Conservative boys and girls also suffered from higher rates of depressive symptoms, but not nearly as much as liberals. Sadness was linked to ideology.
Lord knows the right has gone off on its own jarring psychological journey of late, but many on the left began to suffer from what you might call maladaptive sadness. This mindset had three main features.
First, a catastrophizing mentality. For many, America’s problems came to seem endemic: The American dream is a sham, climate change is unstoppable, systemic racism is eternal. Making catastrophic pronouncements became a way to display that you were woke to the brutalities of American life. The problem, Matthew Yglesias recently wrote on his Substack, is that catastrophizing doesn’t usually help you solve problems. People who provide therapy to depressive people try to break the cycle of catastrophic thinking so they can more calmly locate and deal with the problems they actually have control over.
Second, extreme sensitivity to harm. This was the sense many people had that they were constantly being assaulted by offensive and unsafe speech, the concerns that led to safe spaces, trigger warnings, cancellations, etc. But, as Jill Filipovic argued recently on her own Substack: “I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are ‘deeply problematic’ or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life” are “vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt and a sense that life simply happens to them.”
Third, a culture of denunciation. When people feel emotionally unsafe, they’re going to lash out — often in over the top, vitriolic terms. That contributes to the fierce volleys of cancellation and denunciation we’ve seen over the past few years. For example, Damon Linker recently wrote an opinion piece for the Times arguing that Ron DeSantis is bad, but not as terrible as Trump. The furies descended on him online. The gist was that it is shameful to merely say DeSantis is bad — you need to say he is a fascist, pure evil! If you aren’t speaking in the language of maximalist exorcism, you’re betraying the cause.
This rhetorical style is also self-destructive. When maximalist denunciation is the go-to device, then nobody knows who’s going to be denounced next. Everybody finds himself living in a climate of fear, and every emotionally healthy person is writing and talking from a defensive crouch.
I say that liberal sadness was maladaptive because the mindset didn’t increase people’s sense of agency; it decreased it. Trying to pass legislation grounds your thought in reality and can lead to real change. But when you treat politics as an emotional display, you end up making yourself and everybody else feel afflicted and powerless.
I share the widespread sense that the “woke” era is winding down. Things are calming down. I hope people are coming to the same corny conclusion I have: If you want healthy politics, encourage people to have confidence in their ability to make a difference — don’t undermine that confidence.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.