Conservatives understand ‘meaning of life’ better than liberals

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Conservative“To be or not to be?” Hamlet asked aloud as he pondered the meaning of life. Maybe he was a liberal. Conservatives, more so than liberals, report feeling that their lives are meaningful or have purpose, found a University of Southern California analysis of studies encompassing thousands of participants from 16 countries and spanning four decades.

“Finding meaning in life is related to the sense or feeling that things are the way they should be, and that there is a sense of order,” said David Newman, a doctoral candidate at USC Dornsife’s Mind and Society Centre. “If life feels chaotic, then that would likely dampen your sense that life is meaningful.”

The results were based on five studies examining how strongly conservatives and liberals feel that their lives have purpose.

The scientists analysed results from two nationally-representative samples and three additional samples in which well-being was assessed in various forms. Altogether, these studies encompassed thousands of participants from 16 countries and spanned four decades.

Participants usually ranked their political ideology on a scale from one to seven, ranging from “extremely conservative” to “extremely liberal.” They also rated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “my life has a real purpose” and “I understand my life’s meaning.”

The psychologists were aware that religious belief may be a factor and adjusted the results to account for it. Even then, the association between political leanings and sense of purpose held strong.

The results suggest “that there is some unique aspect of political conservatism that provides people with meaning and purpose in life,” the scientists wrote.

Newman cautioned against making conclusions about anyone’s state of mind and overall well-being based solely on their political leanings. “It doesn’t mean that every conservative finds a lot of meaning in their life and that every liberal is depressed,” Newman said.

Other factors may influence whether someone feels that his or her life is meaningful. “These factors range from various personal characteristics such as how religious someone is to situational influences such as one’s current mood,” Newman said.

Abstract
Conservatives report greater life satisfaction than liberals, but this relationship is relatively weak. To date, the evidence is limited to a narrow set of well-being measures that ask participants for a single assessment of their life in general. We address this shortcoming by examining the relationship between political orientation and well-being using measures of life satisfaction, affect, and meaning and purpose in life. Participants completed well-being measures after reflecting on their whole life (Studies 1a, 1b, and 2), at the end of their day (Study 3), and in the present moment (Study 4). Across five studies, conservatives reported greater meaning and purpose in life than liberals at each reporting period. This finding remained significant after adjusting for religiosity and was usually stronger than the relationships involving other well-being measures. Finally, meaning in life was more closely related to social conservatism than economic conservatism.

Authors
David B Newman, Norbert Schwarz, Jesse Graham, Arthur A Stone

University of Southern California material
Social Psychological and Personality Science abstract


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