I’m not going to get into the details, but I went through some extremely difficult times over the past three and a half years. As in, completely life-changing. The type of experiences that alter you forever, fundamentally shifting your relationship to what you thought was the world around you.
This essay is not about those times. I’m not even going to tell you about them.
What I am going to say is that, for the first time in my life, I was forced into searching for reliable ways to be happy. Not because being happy was a palliative, or a distraction from my woes, but because the choice was between learning to wield some of the basic tools of happiness or slope intractably into dissolution, into the type of defeat from which the soul does not recover. This was a matter of survival.
So: enough background. Let me tell you why I bring this up. A terminal nerd, I am a doctoral student at Boston University, and over the past few semesters I’ve found myself somewhat extensively researching the differences between conservatives and liberals – from psychology to music preferences to religious beliefs. Definitions are in order. Conservatives are, for my purposes, people who exist close to the heart of a traditional culture, whatever that culture is. They tend to be invested in religion, because religion is another way of saying culture. They are not bigots per se, but they tend to distrust or act coolly toward those who live beyond the warm bubbles of their own traditions. Tribal beings, they are cocooned in worlds of constructed social meaning: culture.
Liberals, in contrast, are those who dwell at the flickering edges of their cultures, in the strange and eerie space between the spheres of the world’s traditions, religions, belief systems. They tend to be cosmopolitan, to live in places where many different cultures rub up against one another daily. Because of this exposure, liberals have perceptive, even burdensome insight into how each culture is flawed and deluded in its own, often very serious, way, and so they cannot allow themselves to buy into any of them wholesale. From a liberal perspective, to belong to a culture unthinkingly means to accept that culture's injustices and stupid horrors: to grin blithely at the binding of women’s feet and the redlining of black neighborhoods. And so the liberal can never fully trust human culture. She is destined to live just at its peripheries, in the weird interstices between worlds.
It’s fascinating material, this, but more striking has been the timing of my involvement in it. This is because the study of the ideological spectrum could easily be recategorized as an inquiry into different approaches to the problem of happiness.
The child of pot smokers and rebels, I have always been taught to believe that conservatives are mostly wrong, about most things, and that the project of civilization is largely the process of dragging these atavistic, blunt-browed austalopithecenes along, very much against their will, until we – the radicals and liberals – have built a society free of inequality, racial hostility, and recreational automobile racing.
I no longer subscribe to that vision.
Instead, I have a vision that is far more interesting, because I think it is closer to reality – and reality is always more interesting than our models of it. In these times of great social discord, as conservatives and liberals increasingly slander and vilify one another on windy talk radio shows and in harrumphing newspaper op-eds, as the Occupy movement has galvanized an entire generation with its tent cities and raucous but defiantly democratic general assemblies, as the culture wars continue screeching on about what women can or cannot do with the richness of their wombs, I have begun to recognize a distinction that makes much of this absurd conflict seem tractable, finally make some sense. What I have seen is this: conservatives are, in fact, wrong, but mostly only on those issues and difficulties that arise on the macro scale, the sweeping scope of planetary systems, environmental threats, and cultural tides. This is because conservative people do not think at this scale.
Instead, conservatives see people. That is, bluntly speaking, bodies – families, children, neighbors. They live in environments where they can see and be near each other corporeally, slap each other on the back, make off-color jokes, hear the register of each other’s laughs. Conservatives are connoisseurs of the quotidian. They are remarkably good – as a general rule, with endless exceptions – at being human animals.
Meanwhile, liberals and progressives are, let us be honest, spot-on about the larger issues. This is why they – we? – so viscerally understand the horrifying implications of the groaning shift of the climate, why they attend talks to learn about the decline of cheap oil, why they buy farm shares instead of Monsanto beans, why they grow indignant at the treatment of factory workers in China and Peru. They are act on these issues because they see how the workings of things are interconnected, because they can shift the scale of their awareness to pan out, take in the entire picture, and thus include assembly line wage slaves whom they have never met in their vision of what is right and wrong.
Conservatives are microscopes. Liberals are macroscopes.
The difficulty with being a progressive, radical, or liberal is that the scale of the world is far larger than a woman or man can ever be. There is a basic mismatch between the aspirations and dilemmas of liberal-leaning people and their meager status as individual, warm-blooded mammals who must live in family and tribe.
To move toward my conclusion with a concrete example, let me tell you about a chemical. Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus. Sex, hugging, breastfeeding, and taking part in shared rituals all release oxytocin. Its effects are to make the participants in these humble activities like and trust one another more, to boost feelings of well-being, to ooze rivers of warmth through our emotional veins. Oxytocin is one of the primary ingredients in the rich cocktail of tribal, family life. When oxytocin is coursing through our bodies, we feel blessed, as if life is benevolent and our fellows trustworthy and good.
Compared with conservatives, liberals tend to be less happy with their family lives, to have fewer children, and to think and exist on more abstract scales. They also tend to be less religious. In other words, they use fewer of the basic biological tools nature has evolved for us to organize and streamline our social lives. Oxytocin is common in all people, but I'd be willing to bet that it is more plentiful in conservatives. They use the tools of the body with more effectiveness to make themselves, and each other, happy.
Basking in the warmth of tribal affection, though, conservatives are blind to the looming dangers at the planetary scale and the miseries the status quo inflicts upon the dispossessed. In a very real way, liberals and radicals pick up where conservatives leave off, struggling always to make the world better, to make it more fair, more just.
But it can do little good to succumb to the laziness and hunger for excitement that incites us to cast our enemies as ogres. Conservatives have real wisdom about life, specifically about life as a warm, love-hungry animal. They are reconciled to it, to its limitations. Liberals, it seems to me, quixotically fight against it. But when the time comes to adjust yourself to life because there is no choice – when you realize that you cannot fight the big battles right now because the smaller ones, the ones arising from relationships, from personal tragedies, from the pain of actual living, are threatening to finish you – the wisdom of the animal body offers real comfort and good.
Conservatives’ small-scaled lives teach us that friendships and the touch of a loved one matter immensely – give me the choice between a companion and bread, and I will starve with the company. Liberals inspire with their broad understanding, their ability to see the entire and its patterns, their compassion for those who are left outside where it is cold and damp. Perhaps it would be trite to say we need both these strategies. Instead, I will say that I need both: I cannot live in the world of vast systems or in the warm, compressed universe of the tribe alone. My own happiness depends on marrying these knowledges.
When I decided I needed to learn to be happy, I found that my counterculture background had not provided me with the tools I needed. I found that the people who voted for my enemies had a glowing wisdom about the project of the body, its need for love, touch, and social regularity, that the wild lives of my peers lacked. The culture wars go on, on Fox News and the Daily Show. But inside myself, I have called an armistice.
Note: This is a very slightly modified version of an essay I wrote in early 2012 for an event in Boston.