Is there a mental health divide between liberals and conservatives?
Conservatives are happier than liberals — at the very least, they rate their mental health higher. This is not necessarily a new finding. Many studies have agreed that conservatives report greater levels of happiness and well-being than their liberal counterparts and this gap may extend as far back as the 1970s. In line with these studies, we find that there is an ideological gap in mental health assessments. Yet, mental health and ideology might have a more nuanced relationship than these studies show. Thus, we also suggest that the mental health differences between liberals and conservatives is ultimately a matter of perspective rather than inherent differences.
Of course, happiness, well-being, and mental health are not equivalent terms. Here we specifically explore the ideological gap on peoples’ assessments of their own mental health. Using data from the 2022 Cooperative Elections Study (CES), we looked at the average self-assessed mental health levels between liberals and conservatives. The survey asked 60,000 American adults to rate their own general mental health on a five-point scale ranging from poor (which we assign a score of 0) to excellent (a score of 100).
On this scale, the population’s average mental health is just above the “good” mark. This means that when we asked respondents to rate their mental health, the average rating was just slightly higher than being “good”, a score of about 60 out of 100. Liberals’ mental health is just a few points lower than the population’s, while conservatives land somewhere in between “good” and “very good”–about 13 points higher than liberals, and about 8 points higher than the population. Looking at averages alone, in line with studies on happiness, we see that conservatives do report higher mental health scores than liberals, moderates, and the population as a whole.
However, conservatives may simply rate their mental health higher than liberals because they are different in other ways that are also associated with better mental health. For instance, conservatives are more likely to be religious, older, and married–all factors that are associated with greater happiness and well-being. Because we have a very large sample and we know a lot about the people in our sample, we can account for many of these factors in a large regression model. The regression model allows us to see how much each factor affects an individual’s mental health once you control for all of the other things that might also matter.
The graph below plots the results from this regression model. When dots fall to the right of the zero line, that indicates that they are associated with people rating their mental health better. For example, people who are 65 or older rate their mental health about 17 points higher than people who are 18–29 years old. When dots fall to the left of the zero line, that indicates that they are negatively associated with self-reported mental health ratings. For example, having recently experienced a traumatic event like being the victim of a crime, visiting the emergency room, or losing a job are all associated with about a 5 point reduction in one’s self-assessed mental health. In general, notions of stability and success can predict higher mental health, while instability and hardship can predict lower assessments. Money may not ‘buy happiness’ but someone with these experiences is more likely to report having better mental health.
But even once we account for all of these factors, there is still about an 8 point difference between how liberals and conservatives rate their mental health. There are a few different ways to interpret this result. One possibility is that there is something inherent in being conservative that is beneficial for mental health. Perhaps the conservative worldview that emphasizes personal agency and self-control leads conservatives to take more responsibility in maintaining their emotional well-being or cope with stress. On the other side of the coin, it could be less of an issue of personal responsibility, and more of perception. Namely, conservatives’ greater levels of justifications for and acceptance of the current state of the world and inequality may also be a pacifying factor for their own mental state. Liberals might have lower levels of mental health because they are more conscious of injustices in the world. One study tested this hypothesis and found that liberals were more likely to be unhappy than conservatives even after controlling for how concerned people were about things like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and racial injustice.
Alternatively, conservatives may lend less weight to the notion of “mental health” in the first place. After all, research shows that conservative ideology is associated with stigmatizing mental health. It may be that conservatives are dismissive of the term “mental health” and thus report a higher assessment. This complements notions that conservatives tend to report higher happiness, but liberals display actions of greater happiness.
While we have established that conservatives rate their own mental health higher than liberals, another important question is whether being liberal versus conservative affects how people’s mental health assessments respond to the things that happen in their lives. That is, do some events influence the mental health assessments of conservatives while other things matter more for liberals? To look at this, we divided our sample based on ideology and then re-estimated our regression model for each group. Interestingly, we find that most life events appear to affect liberals and conservatives in very similar ways.
For instance, liberals’ and conservatives’ mental health is affected in about the same way when they finish school, have a child, get a raise, or any of a number of other life situations or events. In the few cases where one side is affected more than the other, it is actually liberals who get more of a boost. Growing older, getting married, and attending church produce a greater mental health boost for liberals than those events do for conservatives. While one study shows that religiosity does not have much of an influence on liberals’ happiness, we find that liberals get a greater mental health boost from attending church than conservatives.
At the same time, conservatives appear to be more negatively affected by job/financial stress than liberals are. Conservatives’ take about a 6-point hit to their mental health ratings for low income, being unemployed, or having recently lost a job. By contrast, these factors are only associated with about a 2-point reduction in the mental health of liberals.
The most stark difference, however, is for divorce. Liberals who got divorced in the past year rate their mental health about 5-points higher, on average, whereas conservatives who recently divorced see a 10-point reduction in their self-assessed mental health rating.
Independent of “which side is happier”, the story of ideology, mental health and well-being may be a more nuanced one than what is being presented. It’s worth noting that the difference in mental health assessments between liberals and conservatives, once controlling for various factors, is only 8 points. Understanding that difference is a matter of perspective. On one hand, identifying as liberal rather than conservative has about the same negative association with one’s self-assessed mental health as being the victim of a crime. This 8 point difference could be even more significant if it leads to lower levels of despression, substance abuse, or suicide. Taken from this perspective, the ideological difference can seem quite large and quite impactful.
On the other hand, even though that difference is statistically significant, it is not massive. On the scale used in our data, this amounts to less than a third of the distance between a rating of “good” and “very good.” And liberals and conservatives alike report positive mental health on average. Research also suggests that people with depression cluster to the left, and that when controlling for these people, ideology ceases to be a significant predictor of happiness. Thus, it may be that our 8 point ideological gap is larger than reality and being exacerbated by people with depression. Taken together with the possibility that conservatives may be inflating their own self-assessments due to a more dismissive view towards mental health assessments in general, there is reason to question what this 8 point divide truly signifies.¹
But what is at least as noteworthy is that peoples’ mental health assessments respond very similarly to the same types of life events regardless of their ideological predispositions. And, if anything, conservatives appear to take a bigger hit to their mental health than liberals when they encounter stressors like divorce or employment disruption. While “Conservatives are Happier than Liberals” may be an effective narrative hook, it masks a great deal of nuance in terms of the similar ways in which liberals’ and conservatives’ mental health assessments respond to many life events.
¹ One way in which our data suggests that this might be true is the fact that the mental health assessments of conservatives are less strongly predicted by life events compared to the mental health assessments of liberals. Our set of 33 items predicts 25% of the variance in liberals’ mental health assessments but just 15% for conservatives. This is a pattern we would expect to find if some conservatives are not providing honest self-evaluations of their mental health status. Though it is also possible that we are simply not accounting for as many things that influence conservatives’ mental health assessments.