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Liberal youth are far more depressed than their conservative counterparts — especially the girls

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Columbia University study revealed a striking difference between conservative and liberal teenagers. Conservatives are generally happier than their leftist counterparts — not by a little, but by a significant measure.

The researchers, whose revelatory work was released to little fanfare, indicated that while this disparity was striking, the cause was not as easy to pinpoint.

While some have since proffered various explanations for the delta, such as the impact of social media or respondents' religiosity, there is a growing sense that the progressive mentality is a key depressive factor.

Unwoke and smiling

The study, entitled, "The politics of depression: Diverging trends in internalizing symptoms among US adolescents by political beliefs," was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine – Mental Health in December.

As the title suggests, epidemiologist Catherine Gimbrone and her coauthors analyzed depressive attitudes between conservative and liberal 12th-graders from 2005 to 2018.

Conservatism was defined in the study as "support of individual liberty, right-wing social and religious values, and unregulated free markets." Liberalism was defined as "support of equal opportunity, free but semi-regulated markets, civil liberties, and social justice."

The researchers found that "conservatives reported lower average depressive affect, self-derogation, and loneliness scores and higher self-esteem scores than all other groups."

From approximately 2011 to 2018, female liberal 12th-graders' depressive affect score climbed precipitously. Their male liberal counterparts were neck-and-neck with them in terms of depression between 2005 and 2011; however, the boys' aggressive rise in depressive affect lagged behind the girls' by a year, starting in earnest around 2013.

At no time between 2005 and 2018 did conservative 12th-graders of either sex come close to liberal depression levels, meaning liberal boys are ever sadder than conservative girls.

Conservative males' depressive affect score was slightly higher than their female counterparts until mid-2016, after which female conservatives took a slight lead.

Researchers determined that true of all students was that the more educated their families were, the more likely the students were to be depressed.

The researchers attempted to account for the significant divergence between conservatives and liberals, suggesting that "conservative ideology may work as a psychological buffer by harmonizing an idealized worldview with the bleak external realities experienced by many."

Whereas conservatives may have been better equipped to handle reality, the researchers also intimated that liberals may have had a harder time internalizing "a series of significant political events," such as the election of a black president in 2008; the Great Recession; the student debt crisis; Republicans taking control of Congress; and former President Donald Trump's 2016 victory.

The researchers indicated the spike in liberals' emotional instability in recent years might also have something to do with "war, climate change, school shootings, structural racism, police violence against Black people, pervasive sexism and sexual assault, and rampant socioeconomic inequality [that] became unavoidable features of political discourse."

Why are liberals so sad?

Musa al-Gharbi, writing in American Affairs, noted that this study is not the first to highlight that conservatives "do not just report higher levels of happiness, they also report higher levels of meaning in their lives."

Al-Gharbi raised one prominent theory that the "apparent psychological benefit of conservatism actually comes from feeling deeper connections with one’s country, one’s family, and the Divine," but noted that patriotic and religious liberals should then see similar levels of happiness. However, he pointed out that "political scientist Ryan Burge has demonstrated that independent of religious attendance, liberals are roughly twice as likely to report mental illness as conservatives."

Al-Gharbi similarly shot down a suggestion raised in Gimbrone's study that wealth and privilege may be what have been cheering up conservatives, noting that wealth increasingly correlates with liberal political parties and views in the U.S..

The reason for the divergence, suggested Al-Gharbi, is that "conservatism and ideological fellow travelers (religiosity, patriotism) may help people make sense of, remain resilient in the face of, and respond constructively to inequality and misfortune, irrespective of where they fall on the social strata. Liberal ideology, by contrast, may not provide the same benefits to adherents."

Additionally, people "who are unwell may be especially attracted to liberal politics over conservatism for a variety of reasons."

Journalist Matthew Yglesias refused to accept that the answer lies in progressive politics simply being a catch-all for miserable and sick people, suggesting instead that catastrophizing (i.e., focusing on the worst possible outcomes) is a big factor, especially since "mentally processing ambiguous events with a negative spin is just what depression is."

"Instead of changing the things they can change and seeking the grace to accept the things they can’t, they’re dwelling unproductively as problems fester," wrote Yglesias.

While catastrophizing is bad for the soul, Yglesias indicated that progressive institutional leaders have taught young ideologues that it's a "good way to get what they want."

He referenced the understanding shared by blogger and lawyer Jill Filipovic, who wrote in a February Substack post, "I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are 'deeply problematic' or even violent."

Filipovic added, "Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life — to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean — are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response."

Conservative commentator David Brooks appeared to agree in part with Yglesias, suggesting in the New York Times that liberals are less happy and more prone to depression because they "suffer from what you might call maladaptive sadness."

This maladaptive sadness allegedly has three main features:

  • A catastrophizing mentality whereby the infected routinely assumes the worst and makes catastrophic pronouncements to signal acknowledgment of the "brutalities of American life";
  • Extreme sensitivity to harm whereby the infected expresses constant fear of possible assault "by offensive and unsafe speech" such that she comes to rely upon "safe spaces, trigger warnings, cancellations, etc."; and
  • A culture of denunciation whereby the infected participates in a limitless arena of maximalist denunciation where "nobody knows who’s going to be denounced next. Everybody finds himself living in a climate of fear, and every emotionally healthy person is writing and talking from a defensive crouch."

In the May issue of First Things, editor Rusty Reno further suggested that "one cause of rising teen suicide is late-model liberalism and its embrace of the cult of the victim."

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