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THURSDAY, March 12, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Offering a fresh spin on the red-blue political divide, new research suggests that Americans who lean liberal may be a little bit happier than their conservative counterparts.
The finding -- though far from definitive -- comes from a series of related studies that attempted to grade happiness based on the way roughly 5,000 people of varying political stripes spoke and smiled.
"When we looked at both behavior and political ideology, we found that liberals actually express greater happiness than conservatives," said study lead author Sean Wojcik, who conducted the research while a doctoral candidate in the department of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.
"But it's worth noting that the difference was pretty small," Wojcik added. "So I want to be cautious. The results were significant. And strikingly consistent. But it's not that liberals were elated, and conservatives were depressed. We did find a happiness gap. But that gap was small."
Wojcik and his colleagues reported their findings in the March 13 issue of the journal Science.
Wojcik said the finding that liberals seem slightly happier runs counter to several recent studies that found a small happiness gap favoring conservatives. That earlier research was based on "self-reports" -- meaning happiness levels were graded on whether study participants agreed or disagreed with statements such as: "In most ways my life is close to ideal."
But Wojcik said there can be problems with self-reports. An initial life satisfaction survey that Wojcik's team conducted with more than 1,400 men and women found that, while conservatives say they are happier, they're also more likely than liberals to enhance and elevate their own testimonials. This may owe to conservatives' political ideology that can emphasize traits such as individualism, he said.
With that in mind, Wojcik and his team based their happiness evaluations not on survey responses but on documented behavior.
The researchers started with the 113th Congress, which concluded its two-year run on Jan. 3, 2015. Texts drawn from the congressional record of 2013 -- along with 18 years of prior congressional notes -- were analyzed. The result: more conservative members of Congress were a little less likely to use positive language than their liberal colleagues, the study authors said.
A photographic analysis further determined that conservative members tended to offer slightly less "intense" smiles, according to the study authors.
In contrast, liberals in Congress tended to use more positive language. And, to a modest degree, their smiles were both more intense and more "genuine," the new study claimed.
The study authors then looked at the texts of more than 47,000 Twitter updates posted by conservatives and liberals in the general public. The researchers said they also analyzed the smiles in more than 450 photographs posted to the business networking site LinkedIn.
Political liberals edged out conservatives when it came to verbal and facial signs of happiness and life satisfaction, the study authors contended.
Wojcik stressed that the real message of the study isn't that liberals are necessarily happier, but rather that there are many ways to gauge happiness, all of which should be considered when exploring the subject.
"Ultimately, it's not really fair to say that one group is definitively happier than the other," he said. "Because really, it depends on how you define and measure happiness. And that ends up becoming a very complex philosophical question."
Stacey Tiberio, a research associate with the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, cautioned that while the study may hint at a relationship between political leanings and happiness, it doesn't prove cause-and-effect.
"It's a very interesting study," she said, "largely because there's a ton of research that shows how biased self-reporting can be, and how we are very likely to think and endorse and say something about ourselves that isn't a completely reliable indicator of what's really going on. And here they [the researchers behind the new study] didn't rely on self-reports," Tiberio added.
"But while you can relate the two variables to each other -- politics and happiness -- it doesn't actually mean that one caused the other," Tiberio said. "It doesn't mean that being more conservative causes you to be happier."
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SOURCES: Sean Wojcik, Ph.D., University of California, Irvine; Stacey Tiberio, Ph.D., research associate, Oregon Social Learning Center, Eugene, Ore.; March 13, 2015, Science