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Why Sarah Palin is so happy

A new survey shows that the happiest people also happen to be right-wing, religious and married. Whe

The big political news here in the US over the past week was the victory of the Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell in the Republican primary for the senate in Delaware, Vice-President Joe Biden's old state. This Sarah Palin clone has been blighted by scandal. As well as admitting to having dabbled in witchcraft, she has said that scientists are cross-breeding human beings and animals, and her personal finances seem just as confused. Even the Republican Party strategist Karl Rove says she has no chance of winning against the Democrat candidate, Chris Coons, in November, but she still obtained 30,561 votes. I bet that made her happy.

In my state of New Hampshire, the Republican primary consisted of a very right-wing candidate versus a very, very right-wing one. The former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte, who was endorsed by Palin, narrowly beat the Tea Party candidate, Ovide Lamontagne.

Ayotte argues on her website that "Congress cannot continue to spend money that we do not have, and burden our children with a debt they cannot afford". Completely wrong. The US government is currently able to borrow money for long-term investments at historically low rates - ten-year bonds stand at 2.74 per cent. It is naive, or more likely just politically expedient, to focus only on the liability side of the balance sheet.

Trigger happy

A good deal of the political backlash in the US is down to discontent about the poor state of the economy, caused principally by the high level of unemployment. The argument that government spending has been a waste has a certain attraction to it for those who do not understand the scale of the shock we were hit by. Unfortunately, it is hard to explain to people what might have happened, were it not for the monetary and fiscal stimulus. Without it, in my view, unemployment might well have reached over 20 per cent.

While the Republicans are opposed to any economic policy that the Obama administration might try to implement, they - just like David Cameron and George Osborne when in opposition - do not offer any realistic alternatives. And as in the UK, a counter-movement is mobilising against the "growth deniers" in the US. More than 300 economists and policy experts, led by the former labour secretary and Dartmouth alumnus Robert Reich, have signed a letter urging the government to shun calls to slash the deficit. The signatories warn: "Today there is a grave danger that the still-fragile economic recovery will be undercut by austerity economics." Sound familiar?

Other big news in the US was Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Britain. The media discussion of Catholicism set me thinking about politics, religion and happiness, as it turns out that right-wing religious people such as Palin, Ayotte and O'Donnell are especially happy. I guess the certainty that you are right makes you feel good. And those guns. Either that, or ignorance is bliss. Non-religious left-wingers (many New Statesman readers among them) are, according to the data, an especially miserable bunch.

The growing literature on happiness around the world suggests that people's sense of well-being is a good predictor of their future state. For example, happy people heal faster, have longer life expectancies, are less likely to get coronary heart disease and, on the evidence of lab experiments, enjoy higher levels of productivity and creativity. People who say they are happy actually smile more - that is, they exhibit more "genuine" Duchenne smiles, which occur when both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and
the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks) fire at the same time.

blanchflower table

In the latest wave of the British Household Panel Survey, taken in 2008 and 2009, over 13,000 respondents were asked, on a scale of
1 to 7, "How satisfied are you with your life overall?", where 1 is not satisfied at all, 4 is neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, and 7 is completely satisfied. The responses show that the vast majority of people are happy and fewer than one in ten are not happy, with scores of under four. The average score was 5.22. In the panel (below left), I report the average score by various characteristics. These are generally consistent findings in the literature on happiness.

God help us

Happiness is U-shaped by age, being high for those under 25, falling through middle age and then rising after retirement. People without kids are happy! Married people are happy, while divorced and separated people are unhappy. The unemployed are especially unhappy, as are residents of the West Midlands and Tyne and Wear - who are likely to be among those hardest hit by the government's spending cuts. Income buys happiness. So the austerity programme is going to lower well-being.

Religious people are happier than those who are not religious and Catholics are less happy than followers of the Church of England. The Labour Party may have won the general election in 2005, but Conservative voters were happier than supporters of the other parties.

Similar results are found in the US. In the General Social Survey of 2008, respondents were asked, on a scale of 1 to 3, whether they would say they were not too happy (15.7 per cent), pretty happy (54.6 per cent) or very happy (29.7 per cent). As in the UK, liberals in the US are less happy than conservatives: Republicans are happier than Democrats (with an average rating of 2.37 compared to 2.06) and the religious are happier than the non-religious (2.16 to 2.05). Unemployment and divorce lower happiness; money increases it.

It all goes to suggest that Cameron and Osborne and their cronies are probably pretty happy. God help the rest of us.

David Blanchflower is a labour economist and a professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter