The Happiness Effects of Elections

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By: Arthur Brooks
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“I don’t feel like getting out of bed,” a friend texted me the morning after the 2016 election, so bereft was she at the outcome. Her disbelief was mixed with sadness, anger, and fear.

She had plentiful company in her misery. “‘Post-election Stress Disorder’ Sweeps the Nation,” the PBS NewsHour reported. Within weeks of the election, “post-election anxiety and depression” had entered the mental-health lexicon, with some professionals offering treatments that ranged from cranial electrotherapy stimulation to aromatherapy.

I don’t know what treatments people ended up pursuing, or if they were effective. But I do know a therapy for post-election depression that beats them all: winning the next election. Millions of Americans are still waiting today to see if they will benefit from this therapy, as the presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden remains in limbo—an excruciating uncertainty for our nation.

But even if Biden wins, and my friend’s unhappiness is cured, that will not mean suffering has ceased. Some might argue that this is inevitable in a nation with a system of adversarial, competitive politics. Post-election suffering for the losers is just a cost of doing business, right?

Perhaps it is. But you don’t have to play that game. If your guy ends up losing, you can lessen your suffering with a few straightforward practices. And if your guy won, you have it within your power—if you so choose—to show grace and make things easier on your friends and neighbors who voted the other way, thus making American life a little better for all of us. As we nervously wait for the final result, it is worth making a happiness plan—for ourselves and others—in either contingency.

The happiness effect of competitive elections—especially at the presidential level—is real and well documented. In 2015, a group of scholars at several universities published a paper that looked at the happiness effects of the 2012 election based on survey data from more than 300,000 Americans. They found a significant decrease in well-being immediately after the election among those partisan voters who supported the losing candidate, Republican Mitt Romney. Specifically, while about 60 percent of Republicans said they were happy each day before the election, that fell to about 30 percent the day after the election.

To give an idea of how significant the happiness effect was, the authors found that the election decreased happiness for voters from the losing party more than the Boston Marathon bombings did for Boston residents. The election effect dissipated quickly, however; Republican and Democrat voters were having good days at about equal rates after a week.

Interestingly, while partisan voters on the losing side had their happiness depressed, those on the winning side did not get a happiness bump. In other words, it would appear that in presidential elections, the happiness losers lose more than the winners win. This finding is reinforced by a study in the journal Economica on both the 2012 and 2016 elections. As the authors write, “Both elections had a net negative wellbeing effect.”

That study found another interesting twist: While hedonic well-being (feelings of pleasure) recovered quickly after both elections, after the 2016 election, evaluative well-being (all around life satisfaction) on the losing side suffered for months, reaching its lowest point on Inauguration Day, 2017. Given the fact that the 2016 campaign was more negative than 2012, this plausibly suggests that the net happiness loss from elections partly increases with their relative bitterness.

I don’t know if the suffering levels after this election will be more like 2012 (in which the losers feel  much better in a week or two) or 2016 (with a long tail of unhappiness). But in either case, there are remedies we can employ if we are personally anxious and depressed. These are good to know, even if we aren’t the disappointed ones this time, because we will be at some point in the future. And we can help others who are suffering today if we choose to.

1. DON’T RUMINATE.

Rumination, from the Latin for “chew the cud” is the human tendency to go over and over things, often unpleasant things from the past. For example, say you have a personal confrontation at work. You might end up thinking about it all day, rolling it over and over in your head and imagining having dealt with it in different ways.

In most situations, this is productive, because it stimulates learning. With insight gained from rumination, next time you might behave differently and avoid a conflict. This is only true if you have agency over the thing you’re ruminating about, however. If you have no control over an event—such as the outcome of an election—no amount of rumination can help you. It can only lower your happiness further.

2. DON’T PERSONALIZE THE LOSS.

One of my idle pleasures is watching “La Liga”—the Spanish soccer league, arguably the highest-level soccer in the world. My favorite team is Barça, from my adopted hometown of Barcelona. Barça’s motto is “Més que un club” (“More than a club”). When Barça wins, fans say, “We won!” And sometimes—not too often, thank God—“We lost.”

With sports, this kind of personalization is fun and relatively harmless. With politics, it has more serious consequences. As politics has become more personal, and more tied to social identity, political disagreement has become less about ideas and more a source of ego threat, meaning that the repudiation of my candidate may feel like a rejection of me personally. This kind of ego threat can hurt your relationships—say, if you interpret someone voting against your candidate as that person rejecting you—and stimulate unhappiness.

3. DON’T CATASTROPHIZE. YOUR VICTORY WILL COME AGAIN SOON ENOUGH.

Politicians and pundits love to talk about generational victories. How many times have you heard some talking head say something like, “This election will define American politics for decades to come.” Or, “This is the most consequential election in our lifetime”? These warnings and promises often end up being overstatements. For example, Richard Nixon’s destruction of the Republican Party in 1974, and Gerald Ford’s subsequent defeat by Jimmy Carter two years later, resulted in merely a four-year Republican hiatus from the White House. The incumbent Carter was defeated after one term by Ronald Reagan, who went on to be one of the most popular Republican presidents in history.

I know, I know, this time it’s different. Well, I don’t believe it. Whoever wins will surely shape the United States for the next four years, but it won’t be permanent defeat for the other side.  If you are suffering, remember that tomorrow is a new day, and sooner than you think, your party will win. On the other hand, if you are celebrating today, sober up: Sooner than you think, your party will lose.

4. DON’T IGNORE THE LOCAL.

To my mind, one of the most dangerous trends in American politics involves the well-known decline in local news consumption. This accompanies an increase over the past decade in news consumption overall, indicating a shifting of attention toward federal politics. The rise of social media and partisan national cable networks has focused attention on Washington, D.C., in a way that is, in my view, far out of proportion to the importance of national politics to our everyday lives. We are in the era of national politics as a perverse form of entertainment.

Refocusing on local issues and policy is not only a good thing to do civically; as I have written before, it is also good for happiness. One person can’t change much of anything at the national level. But at the local level, you can actually make a significant difference by getting involved.

5. DON’T BE UNGENEROUS IN VICTORY.

My advice above has generally been for the losing side. For the winning side, my main counsel is to be generous. There is a sort of limbic satisfaction in rubbing a loser’s nose in defeat, especially after a bitter contest. But it’s a Pyrrhic satisfaction at best: Today you win; tomorrow you lose—at which point you can expect rough treatment from today’s losing side, if you were ungenerous in victory.

But there’s a deeper satisfaction that comes from being a generous victor. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined magnanimity as “greatness of soul.” A magnanimous person “does not bear a grudge, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them.” And it is a well-documented phenomenon that generosity stimulates human happiness.

If your guy wins, showing magnanimity is not just a gift to the other side; it is also a gift to yourself.

These suggestions are not really about the election per se. They are applicable to any disappointments that are beyond our control.

For example, I hear all the time from people who are anxious and depressed because of what they are missing out on due to the coronavirus pandemic. The advice I give? Don’t ruminate on what you are missing; don’t personalize the pandemic as if the gods were out to get you; don’t catastrophize by assuming things are permanent; don’t ignore the world directly around you, which you can affect; and don’t miss out on the opportunity to help others who are suffering.

The pandemic, the election—indeed, any disappointment—can be an opportunity for growth if we can remember these lessons and put them into action. And no matter how you end up feeling when this election is finally called, perhaps you can take comfort in the fact that you won’t have to go through this again for another four years.

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