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The Politics of Very Happy People
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The Politics of Very Happy People

They don’t share a particular party affiliation, but perspective.

Coby Rich, 20, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, helps Makayla Davis, 23, register to vote in Pennsylvania during a voter drive on campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, August 31, 2022. (Photo by Michelle Gustafson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Not surprisingly, the happiest people in America share some things in common. 

They tend to put a lot of emphasis on family and community and are often people of faith. They take an interest in physical fitness. They are more often female than male and more likely to be over 60 than the population as a whole. 

That’s according to the most recent National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey which found just 12 percent of Americans describe themselves as “very happy,” the lowest—by far—recorded in the study since it started in 1972. 

But you didn’t need a team of social scientists at the University of Chicago to tell you that aerobicizing grandmas who go to church potlucks are happier than most people. Just try Barb’s chicken divan and try to be a frowner, for goodness’ sake!

What may surprise you, though, is what the happiest Americans do not share in common: their politics. Sorry to disappoint those who believe the members of one team are  happier or better adjusted, but the survey found very happy people evenly distributed among Democrats and Republicans. 

And it’s not that they’re less partisan, either. Rates are basically identical to the population as a whole. It’s just that affiliation with either party—or neither party—doesn’t seem to be correlated.

Frankly, that surprised me. I had hoped to find evidence not that one party was better off than the other, but that not being political might contribute to a greater sense of well-being. Maybe a funny thing for a political editor to wish for, but like a bartender turning away obviously intoxicated patrons, I work under the strong belief that too much of my product is bad for people.

There is lots of research that points to the negative emotional consequences of intense political engagement, and how political groups and media companies can create and exploit those bad feelings for voter motivation, donations, or profit. It’s a pretty tight loop. And the effects are far-reaching. One recent study estimated that 40 percent of American adults found politics to be a significant source of anxiety. 

On the one hand, you can see their point. Our system is broken, our politics are cruel, and we seem to lack the will to break out of the doom loop. Who wouldn’t be anxious? This is the insight offered by the old “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” school of bumper-sticker philosophy. 

On the other hand, anxiety and the anger it produces are the causes of the biggest problems we face. Can we rage against a lack of cooperation? Can we shout down those who refuse to engage in meaningful debate? We’ve been trying and getting predictable results.

So how do “very happy” people do it when it comes to politics?

The majority of Americans continue to describe themselves as “pretty happy.” The 56 percent in this year’s survey, conducted with the Wall Street Journal, is roughly consistent with results going back to the 1980s. But at the extremes—“very happy” and “not too happy”—the period since 2018 has, also not surprisingly, shown lots of volatility. The “very” category is down 20 points and the “not too” category is up 18 points. 

For most of the five decades in the study, there have been twice as many or more “very happy” Americans compared to the “not too happy” group. The lines crossed last year and are now the reverse of where they have mostly been since 1972. The timing suggests the pandemic is the most obvious explanation, but other measures of national sentiment find a strong partisan tilt in those perceptions.

Another survey by the National Opinion Research Center, this one with the Associated Press, found that while just 14 percent of adults said the country was going in the right direction, the 85 percent majority that said we were on the wrong track was decidedly more red than blue: 92 percent of Republicans compared to 78 percent of Democrats.

So are the 12 percent of respondents to the happiness survey who describe themselves as “very happy” part of that same small minority who thinks things are going just fine in the country? Are they the ones not paying attention—who are too oblivious to see the many problems we are facing and rightly despair? If they were paying attention, wouldn’t they be angry, too?

I bet that’s not it. 

LaTasha McCorkle, a 35-year-old mom and business owner from Greensboro, N.C., was one of those “very”s surveyed in the happiness study. She’s very active in her community, including on politically charged issues. But she understands the difference between engagement and anxiety. 

“Only worry about what you can control,” she told the Wall Street Journal

Amen, Ms. McCorkle. 

In the end, all we can really control is what we do—how we respond to this broken, beautiful world we get to live in. Your party or ideology does not dictate your happiness or unhappiness, but whether you can engage with those things in constructive ways certainly does. 

What very happy people seem to have in common most of all is being plugged in where they are, loving and serving the people around them. That doesn’t mean obliviousness to larger problems or the plight of mankind. Rather, it points to a deeper wisdom that worries about things beyond our control are wasted and, very often, interferes with finding a purposeful, joyful life in the soil where we are planted.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.