It’s Unhappiness, Stupid
Stagnant wages among middle-class Americans. Job losses arising from automation. A decline in domestic manufacturing. Culture wars. Racism. A nativist response to immigration.
Pundits and politicians have pointed to a range of factors they believe played a prominent role in propelling Donald Trump to presidential victory in 2016. One thing that many of these explanations share is that they emphasize a strong sense of discontent. As social and behavioral scientists who study subjective well-being—that is, people’s happiness—my colleagues Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Lyle Ungar, Johannes Eichstaedt, and I decided to more systematically investigate the role played by (un)happiness in shaping voting patterns across the United States.
Well-Being Across America
We looked at more than two million responses to Gallup’s U.S. Daily Poll during the years leading up to the 2016 election. Participants answered questions about how satisfied they were with life, both now and how they think it will be in five years’ time, as well as their day-to-day experience of positive and negative emotions. Aggregating this data to the county level then allowed us to build a detailed picture of well-being across different and diverse areas of the country.
Counties where voters were low on satisfaction with their lives overall, low on feelings of purpose in life, and low on positive emotions like happiness and enjoyment, as well as high on negative emotions like stress and worry, saw disproportionately large vote swings toward Donald Trump.
Misery and Voting Behavior
Not only was misery a strong predictor of voting behavior, it was the single best predictor of which geographical areas voted most strongly for Donald Trump—more so, in fact, than any other county-level factor we studied, which included income, unemployment, education, moral values, religion, race and racism, and past voting patterns, among many others.
We cannot say for certain why exactly some areas were particularly unhappy. Many of the economic, psychological, and cultural factors noted above will no doubt have contributed to it. Perhaps surprisingly, given the large increases in the country’s GDP, data going back to the 1970s show that happiness levels have fallen in the United States over the past few decades. But whatever the many reasons for people’s unhappiness, the data show that how happy people are is a significant psychological pathway to the choices they make at the ballot box.
By looking at changes in county-level subjective well-being and voting across time, from one election cycle to another, we were able to confirm these findings. Equally, we found similar results at the level of individual people, using well-being measures in the American National Election Studies. Unhappy voters were more likely to vote for Donald Trump—a pattern of behavior that remained evident even when we accounted for factors such as age, race, education, income, religion, and their vote choices at previous elections.
This pattern of voter behavior suggests that governments will always struggle to stay in power when the population is unhappy. This is very much in line with patterns in European elections going back to the 1970s. But not only do unhappy people vote against the status quo in terms of the incumbent government, we find they also vote against the status quo more broadly.
Anti-establishment or “populist” candidates appear to be particularly adept at converting unhappiness into votes, at least when they are not already in office. Looking only at primary elections in 2016, we found that unhappier counties were more likely to vote for Donald Trump in Republican primaries. What’s more, the relationship between unhappiness and anti-establishment voting held true for Democrats as well: unhappier counties were more likely to go for Bernie Sanders in Democratic primaries.
Unhappy people want change. Governments should pay close attention to the happiness of citizens if they want to be re-elected.
For Further Reading
Ward, G. (2020). Happiness and voting: Evidence from four decades of elections in Europe. American Journal of Political Science, 64(3), 504-518.
Ward, G. (2019). Happiness and voting behaviour. World Happiness Report, 46-65.
Ward, G., De Neve, J.-E., Ungar, L. H., & Eichstaedt, J. C. (2021). (Un)happiness and voting in U.S. presidential elections. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(2), 370–383.
George Ward is a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course.