If you study and write about happiness as I do, you become attuned to patterns. For instance, when I walk into a workplace, I can usually tell, based on my first few conversations, if the environment is happy or not. And in the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.
I subjected this observation to a bit of analysis, and sure enough, the numbers bear it out. I analyzed the 2014 data from the General Social Survey collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to see how attention to politics is associated with life satisfaction. The results were significant. Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being “very interested in politics” drove up the likelihood of reporting being “not too happy” about life by about eight percentage points.
My results did not prove causality: People who pay close attention to politics might also tend to have some latent source of unhappiness. But behavioral science shows that the link might just be causal through what psychologists call “external locus of control,” which refers to a belief that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on one’s life.
An external locus of control brings unhappiness. Three social psychologists showed this in a famous 2004 paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review. Studying surveys of college students over several decades and controlling for life circumstances and demographics, they compared people who associated their destinies with luck and outside forces with those who believed they were more in control of their lives. They conclude that an external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.
Incidentally, the researchers also found that this external locus of control has been increasing among students since the 1960s. No surprise here, as young people have been increasingly exposed to trigger warnings, sensitivity about microaggressions and safe spaces. Awareness of oppression is crucial, of course, but the research suggests that today’s campus trends carry tangible academic and psychological costs.
To be sure, an external locus of control is not necessarily inaccurate. If someone is directly affected by a political action (having her immigration status changed or losing her health insurance, for example), her attention will naturally be occupied by events outside her control. However, the external locus of control can also be based on an illusion that something affects us — meaning that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary.
Which brings us back to the opening question of this essay: When is politics like a tree? In his classic book “Living With the Himalayan Masters,” the Hindu guru Swami Rama recounts the day his master taught him the nature of “maya,” or illusion. Without warning, his master tightly grabbed hold of a tree and cried out: “Help me! My body has been caught by this tree trunk.” Swami Rama exhausted himself trying to pry his master off the tree, but to no avail. Finally, his master let go, and said, laughing, “This is maya.” He explained that we needlessly attach our fate to external things, bringing misery. The simple solution: Just let go.
The question today is how much of our political consumption is like the tree, and thus expendable in order to raise our happiness. We all have political opinions — some of them strongly held. But much of what actually happens in politics is far beyond our individual influence. That doesn’t mean it is intrinsically unimportant, but let’s be honest: Many of us consume political news and commentary in a compulsive, concupiscent sort of way, voluntarily subjecting ourselves to gratuitous information and stimuli, particularly on social media.
The unhappiness results speak for themselves. A friend of mine — a well-known journalist with a large social media following — once confided in me that there is little that brings him more anxiety than checking his Twitter feed. As he clicks on his notifications, he can feel his chest tighten. Maybe you can relate to this.
So what is the solution? First, find a way to bring politics more into your sphere of influence so it no longer qualifies as an external locus of control. Simply clicking through angry political Facebook posts by people with whom you already agree will most likely worsen your mood and help no one. Instead, get involved in a tangible way — volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.
Second, pay less attention to politics as entertainment. Read the news once a day, as opposed to hitting your Twitter feed 50 times a day like a chimp in a 1950s experiment on the self-administration of cocaine. Will you get the very latest goings on in Washington in real time? No. Will that make you a more boring person? No. Trust me here — you will be less boring to others. But more important, you will become happier.
So go ahead, let go of the tree.
The New York Times