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February 23, 2006

No One Here But Us Nuts...

In today's Washington Post, George Will talks about political affiliation and happiness:

A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that conservatives are happier than liberals -- in all income groups. While 34 percent of all Americans call themselves "very happy," only 28 percent of liberal Democrats (and 31 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats) do, compared with 47 percent of conservative Republicans. This finding is niftily self-reinforcing: It depresses liberals.

Election results do not explain this happiness gap. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the survey began in 1972. Married people and religious people are especially disposed to happiness, and both cohorts vote more conservatively than does the nation as a whole.

Despite the fact that he can never quite resist the temptation to be himself, Mr. Will offers some good insights (admit it, you knew I'd get in a shot at him sooner or later. Might as well get it out of the way). Will is a deft and enjoyable commentator when he refrains from torturing his readers with the Constitution or his recurring fears of an imperial Presidency, very likely brought on by one too many post-prandial helpings of Ben & Jerry's.

But I thought he missed an interesting reason for the happiness gap, and it's a simple one: expectations. I think our expectations have much to do with how we react to the hand life deals us. Will mentions that conservatives are pessimists, but there's a facet to this trait which interests me. Conservatives don't expect life to be fair. This is critical to understanding the happiness gap. Because we don't go through life thinking the world owes us a fair shake, when life treats us unfairly we don't tend to take it personally. We don't get angry at government, society, or the system. We just realize we need to try harder.

I worked hard to install this idea in my sons as a young mother. When I was 24 and living in North Carolina, I watched my friends, all about six years older than I, try way too hard to make everything perfectly equal between their children. We'd go to the beach or the movies and in the back seat, the kids would start whining. Like clockwork, one of my friends would wade in to try and keep the peace. It never worked.

At some point they'd turn to me and say, "Your kids never do this." I'd sit there and fume silently. My boys were on the younger end of the age spectrum. It's not as though they never acted up, but they were usually well behaved in public.

There was a reason for that. My oldest son, a redhead, was extremely clever and strong-willed. He challenged me from the moment he started talking at 8 months. Had I let up on him for a second, though, he'd have been running the house with an iron fist.

Just taking him to the commissary as a baby was exhausting. He talked a mile a minute and had six hands and twelve legs. I literally had to tie him to the shopping cart because both my children, like their mother before them, were climbers and feared nothing on the face of the earth. When his baby brother was born, my three-year-old cherub studied me with intense interest, sensing a critical chink in my armor. Suddenly, he abandoned the direct frontal assault and became a master of wily manipulation. The child was destined for a life in politics (or a life of crime): with this new ally and sometime fall guy at his disposal he could confuse, distract, annoy, harry, and cajole me into doing his evil bidding.

I had to get smart, fast. My only defense was that I was smarter (even if only temporarily) than the two grubby little midgets clinging to my ankles. I caught them scrutinizing other adults and figured as long as I kept them off-balance, I could keep ahead of them at least until they were sixteen or seventeen. So I never tried to be fair to my children. In fact, I was deliberately unfair to them, and I made no bones about it. Every now and then, I would take them shopping and buy one of them a small trinket, and not get the other one something. And if the slighted child complained, he knew exactly what I would say, because he'd already heard it a million times before:

"Life isn't fair, and I wasn't put here to make it so."

I said it matter-of-factly, and gave them both a hug, and moved on, assigning no special importance to the episode because I think children watch adults to see how seriously they should take things, and take many of their clues from the way their parents react. And they got over it very quickly. It was a small lesson, but it was an important one. Not everything has to balance out, and the totality of how much Mom loves you isn't measured by whether she buys you a ring-pop at Wal-Mart or whether your parents spent more on your birthday than they did on your brother's this year. Maybe he needed something this year that you didn't. In the fullness of time, things have a way of evening out. Or not. Either way, it is possible to be happy.

And it's a strange thing: people commented that my sons hardly ever whined or fought with each other. In all the time they were growing up, there was very little of what you'd call sibling rivalry. I'm sure the normal jealousies existed, but there wasn't much payoff for outward manifestations because they weren't rewarded.

And I could almost always take them shopping, even though they were boys, without fear of temper tantrums or bad behavior because they didn't expect to get anything out of the bargain.

I think often happiness is more often found in being satisfied with what we have than by the quantity or quality of what we own or the outcomes we experience in life. If we go through life always thinking happiness should come from some external source: that society, or government, or the world "owes" us something better, then nothing we have will ever seem good enough. Someone else will always have a bigger house, a nicer car, a better education, a prettier wife.

But if we don't expect equal outcomes, then we tend to look to ourselves to go out and get what we can in life and be more satisfied with what we do manage to find. We may not be perfectly satisfied with our present state, but we don't necessarily feel some cosmic injustice has occurred: there is no sense of grievance because our next-door neighbor has it better than we do.

Of course, I suppose the liberal riposte to this would be that conservatives are merely blind to the larger possibilities of income redistribution:

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space.

But I like my nuthouse just fine, thank you.

Posted by Cassandra at February 23, 2006 06:39 AM

Comments

Cass, this was absolutely superb and the most enjoyable reading I've had in a while. Thank you for sharing!

Posted by: Robbie [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 08:18 AM

Thank you, Robbie :)

I appreciate you guys putting up with my rambling. I enjoyed reminiscing about my babies. I can't believe they're all grown up. The time flies so quickly.

I owe so much to my parents, for the love and care they gave me. They are the best.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 08:24 AM

I'm shocked, shocked, that you didn't try to level the playing field, still the waters, smooth the ruffled feathers, equalize the unequal...what were you thinking?

Seriously, I remember when SpecialLad was little (before his injury that made him Special), and he'd ask for something, and I'd give it to him, because there was literally no reason not to. He was never demanding or unreasonable. But then I realized he heard "yes" to every request, and I decided that wasn't a real-life situation, so I began to say "no" to some things. He'd ask why, I'd say you don't get everything you want. Simple.

MathLad was one that would walk into a toy store and believe that everything he saw was what he wanted more than anything else in his life. He'd enjoy a toy for a few days, then it was history. I began to have "shopping days" and "buying days" when we'd go somewhere. They could admire, plan, touch, ride, and dream about the stuff they were seeing at the store, but we'd walk out with nothing in our hands, and no squawking. I always told them that if this wasn't acceptable to them, we could always stop going shopping. They understood that logic. And I was not embarassed by a screaming kid throwing a hissy fit to get what he wanted.

I don't know if it worked well, since my lads are younger than yours, but they were quite easy to live with.

Posted by: MathMom [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:27 AM

...er, embarrassed, not embarassed.

Posted by: MathMom [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:30 AM

This was a good piece.

I need a second child, now, so I can only buy one of them gifts. :)

Posted by: Grim [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:38 AM

I remember reading something in Plato about being tyrannized by your desires. That had a big impact on my thinking - that and a memoir by someone who was imprisoned for years and spent the time remembering books he'd read and reliving old experiences.

I thought, if you can do that and find a way to be happy what right do we have to whine? I can always find a way to want more out of life. My head is always swimming with ideas. That is simply my nature. If you can't envision more, bigger, better... then you'll never accomplish much. But there is a tension between that and appreciating what you have and living in the here and now.

If you can find that perfect space and occupy it for a few minutes at least each day, you can be happy.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:39 AM

If you can find that perfect space and occupy it for a few minutes at least each day, you can be happy.

Ohmmmmmm, ohmmmmmm, ohmmmmmm, ohmmmmmmm...

Posted by: MathMom [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:46 AM

Oh Grim, a second child is such a joy. I don't think I've ever known such perfect contentment as when they laid my second boy in my arms. It was the most uncomplicated love I've ever felt in my entire life: my entire soul just went out to that funny-looking wrinkly pink thing in my arms and I would have filleted anyone who threatened him without a moment's regret. My boys are so different.

My firstborn arouses such strong reactions in me: he can infuriate me like no other but he also makes me laugh and we share an offbeat sense of humor and a childish sense of mischief. My baby ... I just love him unreservedly. His temperment is more like his father's (which may be why) but mentally he's a bit like me, which makes for an interesting mix.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:48 AM

Heh... obviously I haven't found it yet, MathMom.

That's why I drink.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:49 AM

It is difficult for liberals to be happy, considering that they wake up seething, go through the day seething, and go to bed seething. They foam all over their pillow, making it hard to sleep, so they wake up seething.

The funnest thing to do is say "Bush!" around a liberal, and watch them go off the deep end. Very amusing.

Posted by: William Teach [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 03:50 PM

Hey, now: let's not be down on drinking. You remember that other scientific study you were citing not long ago, the one that inspired me to poetics? "Twenty-eight drinks a week, that can make you really think!" &c. ;)

Posted by: Grim [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 03:51 PM

Heh Grim! You don't need a second child. I'll give you one. They even come with their own paychecks!

And the ability to turn hair gray! :-o

Great piece Cass. I'd probably enjoy it more if it weren't for the fact that I'm still thrown for a loop over the birthday song post. Something sorta' sad and wistful about having Doris Day singing your birthday song! ;-o

BTW, hide the wives and daughters. Lock up the liquor and lose the keys. The Warlords are on block leave!

Consider yourselves warned! :-)

Posted by: JarheadDad [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 08:36 PM

Conservatives don't expect life to be fair.

That's exactly right, and where Will is exactly wrong. Maybe HE is a pessimist, but pretty much all the conservatives I know are more optimistic about life in general. We're just REALISTICALLY optimistic. We don't expect a free ride, special status or treatment, and we don't need someone else taking care of us. We're adults, and we expect other adults to be adults.

I think the difference between conservatives and liberals is quite simple, actually. Conservatives are realistic adults, liberals are idealistic teenagers who never matured past that point. I really *do* think their politics are a side effect of their mental illness (inability to mature). They "rebel" (like teenagers, or two year-olds) against authority in all kinds, and don't seem to understand the concept of the responsibilities inherent in authority. Their leaders are their idols, not authority figures to them. Look who their "leaders" (political and otherwise) are. If they're not having a screaming meltdown (Algore, Howard Dean, Cindy SheeHAG, etc.) they're like the parent who tells their kid exactly what they want to hear, just to pacify them. Kerry: "I voted for the war before I voted against it" is a perfect example. Clinton's "Ah feel your pain" schtick, not to mention his notorious irresponsibility and immaturity is why he's their version of God. (God is also too much "authority" for them, needless to say--hence the constant religion-bashing.)

I can't even count the number of times I've TRIED to have normal conversations with leftards, only to just give up because it's a total f'n waste of time and energy trying to deal with emotional retards.

Posted by: Beth [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:44 PM

You should see the wackos I chat with, in what is commonly known as the "toilet forum." Constant barage of left wing talking points, cut and pastes (usually without citation), and ad hominum attacks.

Posted by: William Teach [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 09:55 PM

Cassandra,
I read lots of blog posts every day but this was the best thing I've read in a long time. I am the second oldest of 6 children and I can remember being annoyed a lot with the younger siblings, but I do not really remember much in the way of sibling rivalry taking place in our household. I guess my parents must have handled things pretty well.

Posted by: suds46 [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 23, 2006 11:06 PM

Thank you, suds.

Most mornings I feel pretty foolish pounding away at the keyboard, like someone who can't read without speaking the words aloud. Except, since I can't go back to school right now, I don't seem to be able to work my thoughts out without stunning half the blogosphere senseless with my blather.

I never stop being surprised at how kind you all are.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 24, 2006 02:53 AM

Cass - what a great post! I was raised with 2 sisters - I'm the oldest - they are twins. Needless to say - all three of us are very strong-willed. However, our folks raised us knowing that life isn't fair. Ranching background and Dad's time in the Army had something to do with it.

Now - I'm teaching my daughter that life isn't always fair either. No is a wonderful word to use with kids!!!

The one time she pitched a fit in a store - happened to be the grocery store - I steered the full cart of grocerys to the manager - apologized to the manager for my child's outburst - and we left. 4 years later - she's never had a snit fit in a public place.

I also do the same as Mathmom! We have shopping days and 'Looking' days!

One more thing: speaking of drinking - my wine is mighty tasty right now!

Posted by: Wyoming96 [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 24, 2006 09:34 PM

VG piece. I've sent it around.

Posted by: OBloodyHell [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 24, 2006 11:12 PM

Outstanding read. Not only are you not there to make it fair, sometimes it isn't and shouldn't be up to you to make it all better. Sometimes they have to learn for themselves how to make things right and those are the times you pray the hardest, hoping that everything you had taught them by precept and by example would be enough to help them.

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 25, 2006 02:33 PM

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