Who are happier, liberals or conservatives?

A new study found that conservative members of Congress used fewer words associated with happiness than did their liberal colleagues.

Alex Wong, Getty Images

Republicans may be running the show in Congress but it seems it's the Democrats who are happier.

That's the finding from a wide-ranging study published in Science Thursday examining the happiness of conservatives and liberals. As part of the study, the researchers examined 432 million words in the Congressional Record over the past 18 years as well the "smiling behavior" of politicians in their publicly available photographs from 2013.

Liberal members of Congress used a higher ratio of positive words, such as "interested," "excited," "enthusiastic" and "proud" to negative words, such as "afraid," "upset," "distressed" and "irritable." Those with more conservative beliefs, meanwhile, were less likely to be found beaming in their portraits.

"Conservatism predicted significantly less intense facial action in the muscles around the eyes that indicates genuine happiness," the study found, adding that liberal politicians "smile more intensely and smile more genuinely."

The study expanded beyond politicians to look more broadly at the happiness of conservatives and liberals. Examining 47,257 Twitter status updates from conservatives and liberals as well as 457 photos from LinkedIn, they found a similar pattern.

"Together, our studies found that political liberals exhibited more frequent and intense happiness related behavior than political conservatives," the authors wrote. "Although the effects in these studies were small, they consistently revealed greater happiness-related behavior among liberals, rather than conservatives."

The findings run contrary to earlier studies, mostly from surveys, in which conservatives reported they were happier than liberals. Scientists in those studies credited the upbeat nature of conservatives to their optimism, a sense they are in control of their lives and their "transcendent moral values."

In the latest research, the authors said their findings reflected the limitations of self-reporting in the earlier work. But they also were careful to say that the expressions of happiness they found didn't mean one group of politicians or their supporters were any happier than another nor that this so-called happiness had anything to do with specific events, such as the tenure of President Obama.

"We are quite explicit that we are not arguing that liberals or Democrats are happier - or especially that becoming one will make you happier," the University of California, Irvine's Peter Ditto, a co-author on the study, told CBS News.

Rather, the authors suggest their findings "illuminate the contradictory ways that happiness differences can manifest across behavior and self reports."

"In order to measure happiness correctly, we need to know what it is," Ditto said. "But what is happiness? Is it whether or not you say you are happy, or is it that happy is as happy does? What do you do if someone says they are happy but it doesn't reveal itself in their behavior? If someone says they are happy, are they really happy? Or is it possible that someone can state quite genuinely that they are happy, but not really be happy?"

David Azerrad, the director of the Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said it was absurd to even consider measuring happiness.

"Are we meant to believe that tweets and pictures on LinkedIn are meant to capture something as profound as happiness? I don't think so," Azerrad said. "There are moments of happiness but that isn't the same thing as happiness. I don't think these things get quantified."

Azerrad also took exception to the idea that you could judge whether someone was happy simply based on their political ideology, saying it is much more complicated and has to do with a range of other factors including income or their religion.

"Can you imagine how George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would have reacted to a study like this?" he said.

Still, other researchers said they did see value in the study.

Oscar Holmes IV, an assistant professor of management at Rutgers who has examined political orientation and wellbeing, said the study design "was very clever and is among the first of my knowledge to look at systematically examining behavioral representations of happiness in relation to political orientation."

Holmes said the latest study echoes his earlier work which found citizens in liberal countries tended to exhibit more happiness than those living in conservative nations.

"Taken together, our research and this study lends more support toward the idea that liberal political orientations and policies have a more positive impact on the wellbeing of citizens than conservative political orientation and policies," he said.

  • Michael Casey

    Michael Casey covers the environment, science and technology for CBSNews.com