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Conservative teenagers are generally happier than their liberal peers, study finds

Researchers compared depressive attitudes of 12th-graders from 2005 to 2018 between those aligned with conservative values and those aligned with liberal values.

Conservative teenagers are, in general, significantly happier than their liberal peers, according to a study conducted by Columbia University. 

"The politics of depression: Diverging trends in internalizing symptoms among US adolescents by political beliefs," was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine – Mental Health in December and while its findings were striking, the reason behind the trend is unclear. 

Epidemiologist Catherine Gimbrone and her coauthors compared depressive attitudes of 12th-graders from 2005 to 2018 between those aligned with conservatism, which was defined in the study as "support of individual liberty, right-wing social and religious values, and unregulated free markets" and liberalism, which was defined as "support of equal opportunity, free but semi-regulated markets, civil liberties, and social justice." 


The research concluded that "conservatives reported lower average depressive affect, self-derogation, and loneliness scores and higher self-esteem scores than all other groups."

Between 2011 and 2018, female liberals had a steep increase in depressive affect, which was similar to their male liberal counterparts between 2005 and 2011, but in 2013, they started to fall behind girls. 

Between 2005 and 2018, conservative males and females didn't compare to the levels of their liberal counterparts. During that time, conservative males had a slightly higher depressive affect than their female conservative who eventually took the lead in 2016. In addition, when looking at all categories surveyed, researchers found that the more educated families were, the more likely their child was to be depressed. 


Researchers qualified their research, stating "conservative ideology may work as a psychological buffer by harmonizing an idealized worldview with the bleak external realities experienced by many" and that liberals faced "a series of significant political events," such as the election of a black president in 2008, the Great Recession, the student debt crisis, Republicans taking control of Congress and former President Donald Trump's 2016 victory that could be contributing to their mental state. 

The study pointed to events like war, climate change, school shootings, structural racism, police violence against Black people, pervasive sexism, sexual assault and rampant socioeconomic inequality that "became unavoidable features of political discourse" that might have prompted youth movements to promote "direct action and political change emerged in the face of inaction by policymakers to address critical issues."

"This is particularly true for less privileged groups of liberals, including girls and low SES individuals, for whom both heightened awareness and experience of conservative actions to restrict their rights may have compounded emotional distress," they added. 

But, Columbia University Sociologist Musa al-Gharbi reported in an article for American Affairs that conservatives don't just report higher levels of happiness, they also report having higher levels of meaning in their lives.


"Conservatives are more likely to be patriotic and religious," he wrote. "They are more likely to be (happily) married and less likely to divorce. Religiosity, in turn, correlates with greater subjective and objective well-being. So does patriotism. So does marriage."

Consequently, "conservatism itself would be largely incidental to the happiness gap," he added. So "A liberal who was similarly religious, or patriotic, or had a similarly happy marriage, would be expected to have similar levels of happiness as conservative peers."

Journalist Matthew Yglesias also pondered this question in his article "Why are young liberals so depressed," hypothesizing that people dealing with anxiety or depression aren’t usually "totally untethered from reality," but "instead of changing the things they can change and seeking the grace to accept the things they can’t, they’re dwelling unproductively as problems fester."

"Progressive institutional leaders have specifically taught young progressives that catastrophizing is a good way to get what they want," he added. 

New York Times Opinion Columnist David Brooks argued that "many on the left began to suffer from what you might call maladaptive sadness," with its three main features being a "catastrophizing mentality," "extreme sensitivity to harm" and a "culture of denunciation."

"For many, America’s problems came to seem endemic: The American dream is a sham, climate change is so unstoppable, systemic racism is eternal," he wrote. "Making catastrophic pronouncements became a way to display that you were woke to the brutalities of American life."

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