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Conservatives Are More Likely to Feel Their Lives Have Meaning

Social conservatives in particular report experiencing a strong sense of purpose.
Supporters of Donald Trump react as he speaks during a rally at Valdosta State University, on February 29th, 2016, in Valdosta, Georgia.

Liberals may be searching for the meaning of life. But conservatives—especially social conservatives—are more likely to feel they have found it.

That's the conclusion of new research, which finds this pattern in five separate studies, and reports it persists even after accounting for a person's religiosity.

The results suggest "there is some unique aspect of political conservatism that provides people with meaning and purpose in life," writes a research team led by David Newman of the University of Southern California.

As we have periodically reported, research has consistently found conservatives tend to be happier overall than liberals, but the evidence for this relationship is relatively weak. Newman and his colleagues thought it would be useful to parse out different components of happiness—including the belief that one's life has a clear purpose.

To focus on that question, they conducted several studies while re-analyzing the data from others. In an example of the latter, they looked at a 2007 Baylor Institute of Religion survey, which featured a nationally representative sample of 1,595 Americans.

Participants indicated their political ideology on a one-to-seven, very conservative-to-very liberal scale. They also responded to the statement "My life has a real purpose" on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to four (strongly agree).

"Conservatives reported greater purpose in life than liberals," the researchers report, adding that this sense of meaning was greatest among the most conservative participants.

Surprisingly, this relationship persisted even after they "statistically adjusted for religious attendance," which suggests the results do not simply reflect the fact conservatives are more likely to be part of a purpose-bestowing religious tradition.

This same pattern turned up in data from the website, which allows visitors to fill out a variety of revealing surveys regarding ethics, politics, and religion. Analyzing the answers of more than 3,300 people, they found "conservatives generally reported greater meaning in life, and the slope spiked upward among individuals who were very conservative."

Breaking the data down, they found social conservatives were more likely than social liberals to endorse the statement "I understand my life's meaning." Economic conservatives also reported more meaning in life than economic liberals, but this relationship wasn't as strong.

Separately, a daily diary study of 141 university undergraduates found political conservatives were more likely to give positive answers to questions such as "How meaningful did you find your life was today?" Once again, this held even after taking people's religiosity into account.

Newman and his colleagues argue that any attempts to explain the reasons for this relationship should be "treated with great caution." They note that it's "plausible that third variables, such as a child's upbringing and community expectations, can foster a political orientation, as well as (a personal sense of) more meaning in life."

That said, they point out that social conservatism is strongly based in the idea of "stability and coherence," which are "factors that can increase the subjective experience of meaning in life." If, to some extent, maintaining the status quo gives their lives meaning, it would go a long way toward explaining why social conservatives are so fiercely resistant to societal change.

Or perhaps having a clear, unambiguous sense of right and wrong—and knowing your duty is to stay on the correct side of that line—is sufficient to instill a sense a purpose. Life is more complicated, and perhaps less comfortable, for those of us who view the world in shades of gray.