Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Extremists are Happiest

I've been looking at what contributes to wellbeing around the world.  As reported in previous posts, beyond a basic income, health, and social relations, one of the key elements of overall life satisfaction is commitment to larger projects that go beyond the self.  Such commitment can range from mastering a craft or field or sport to patriotism or religious belief to supporting a hate group.  It just has to be a project that transcends narrow self-interest and gives meaning to life.

In this light, I was fascinated by a NY Times op-ed piece by Arthur C. Brooks that my brother David sent me.  Brooks reports on a Pew Center study that finds conservatives much more likely to say they are very happy about their lives than are liberals.  And extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, the hard core ideologues, report that they are the happiest of all.  The conservative/liberal divide is not so surprising given that long term partnerships (marriage) and religious beliefs are associated with happiness, and conservatives are more likely to have both.

At first blush, the happy extremists are the puzzle.  The world endlessly refuses to operate how these true believers think that it should.  Certainly , this should lead to more frustration than happiness.  But that is not the case.  In terms of wellbeing, actually changing the world is less important than the psychological and social commitment to larger projects.  The fevor of extremists beliefs bestows meaning and purpose on life's activities, whether or not they are successful.  Perhaps ideological fervor brings individual life satisfaction although writ large it can certainly also reduce collective wellbeing.