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Why Are Young Conservatives Less Depressed?

March 6th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Brian Mesimer

In a recent essay, Matt Yglesias attempted to explain the curious but well-documented phenomenon of why younger progressive minded teens are consistently more depressed than their conservative counterparts.

Epidemiological research is showing first, that America’s youth are experiencing alarming levels of depression, and second, that progressive adolescents are more vulnerable to such experiences than their conservative counterparts. The general explanations for this are some combination of the negative impacts of social media (especially on teenage girls) and the trauma and disruption of the last decade or so on American life (a pandemic, racism, sexism, Trump, violence, economic contractions, etc). Yglesias accepts that thesis, but adds the interesting thought that one’s attitude towards life and one’s self-efficacy may help maintain depressive mindsets among progressives (a principle long taught by Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy). The solution, at least in part, is to stop “catastrophizing” about the future and avoid the use of reinforcing language that lends itself to victimhood identity, which minimizes one’s capacity for agency and self-efficacy in the world.

In arguing this, Yglesias is not being a reactionary, but rather espousing fairly standard Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles.[1] In fact, he’s wryly using therapeutic language to combat the tyranny of the therapeutic. And much of what he is saying is right. CBT is kind of counseling’s New York Yankees — hated by most, loved by some, but always very good at what it does. A popular misconception is that it works by a process of changing or substituting beliefs. But such thought disputation is also accompanied by a joint cognitive and behavioral focus on increasing perceived and real self-efficacy over one’s problems.[2] What one can manage, one feels better about.

Now applying this to an epidemiological level gets a bit more tricky. (A caveat: Depression is always more nuanced and complex than it sounds when discussed online, and it is always best to talk about its possible contributors than its causes, which are almost always multifaceted and unique to each situation). For example, learning to see oneself as more in control of one’s fate and less of a victim might have some buoying effect on depressed adolescents. But it is also possible that the last decade of trauma and chaos really has left its impact on America’s youth in the form of learned helplessness, a mindset which victimhood identity only serves to maintain. Removing the maintenance factor is helpful, but some real work would also need to be done around our collective trauma. So it really is difficult for those of us in the ivory tower to speak comprehensively to a phenomenon like this.

One way around this, however, is to rephrase the research question. Yglesias asks “why are young liberals so depressed?” But we can also ask “why are young conservatives less depressed?” We actually know the answer(s) to this question, and there are at least two.[3] First, conservatives tend to have a greater sense of self-efficacy and self worth. They feel more in control of their lives and have more positive outlooks towards the world. Perhaps this comes from conservatism’s own philosophy and values,[4] or perhaps conservatives are found mostly among those privileged enough to rationalize away inequality.[5] Or perhaps, as I have written elsewhere, the critical theory which increasingly forms the foundation of American progressivism might identify true patterns of oppression while leaving us mostly directionless to rectify the problem it identifies. Either way, this vindicates Ygelsias’ thesis, if only because having a sense of agency makes one feel better about one’s self and environment.[6]

Second, conservatives tend to be more religious and tied to a moral or ethical philosophy.[7] This is a point that Yglesias does not address (although Douthat thinks he implies it), but which the research does. Now why would this matter for depression, and its impacts among young conservatives specifically? Quite simply because we know that a) conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals and b) that religiosity mediates the impacts of depression. It stands to reason that as the rise of the religious “nones” increase, this belief gap between liberals and conservatives will increase, thereby offering further insulation against depression for young conservatives.

Now of course correlation does not mean causation. One can be progressive and perfectly happy or conservative and depressed. But religion does offer a serious buffer against depression. Why? The obvious answer is that religion forms communities which provide social support to its adherents. But Schlenker’s et al. (2012) review of the literature lists an abundance of other reasons: less frequent engagement of risky behaviors, the ability to live a satisfying and moral life, and positive relational impacts, among others. They summarize that “greater moral commitment also is associated with a variety of personality and attitudinal qualities that signify greater psychological well-being, buffering from stress, and effective social functioning, including greater internal control, purpose in life, authenticity, and empathy.”[8] On the whole, religious adherents have buffers which frame their lives as a meaningful and self-efficacious pursuit of a greater purpose.

Conversely, Schlenker et al. (2012) surmises that the increase in progressive unhappiness is connected to the adoption of secular values by the left, which in turn impact things like communal support and one’s sense of (you guessed it) self-efficacy.[9] Progressive political philosophy, divorced from transcendent ideals, goals, and guidance, gives one an uncertain future in which one concurrently feels the overwhelming pressure of self-definition and the moral imperative to fight against rightly identified cases of oppression and systemic injustice. Yet modern progressive philosophy often leaves us without a deity who guarantees that our works towards justice will ultimately achieve anything. In fact, they might (and often) fail. The future hangs in the balance, and its outcome is either fully on us or entirely out of our control. That is a Nietzschean recipe for depression if ever there was one.

At a phenomenological level, people who can connect to the transcendent often feel more secure in future outcomes while also feeling less responsible for changing the world on their own. For example, I grew up as a conservative during the Bush II era, swimming in a religious milieu of evangelicalism, dispensationalism, and Calvinism. While there were certainly some negatives to that combination, it also gave me some adaptive traits, the first of which being that it gave me instant community with a group of like-minded believers in high school. Together, we prepared for and expected hardship, persecution, and failure (although little ever came) because Jesus said this would happen. We had a clear mission and ordained purpose, which was evangelization. We knew world evangelization would not come to pass in our lifetimes, but that was okay because our stories were linked to the grander one of cosmic redemption. If something went wrong, we knew that it could probably be explained by sin, which had an accessible remedy in the cross. A Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty meant that His purposes would come to pass no matter what, further relieving us of our burden to immanentize the eschaton while reminding us that our individual efforts would still mean something in the end.

This is not to say that a bunch of teenage Calvinists set loose on our public high school wasn’t occasionally a nuisance (ask my teachers), but that a religious mindset offered us a sense of purpose, security, and meaning in the world. This is hard (but not impossible) to come by in modern progressive thought. In fact, it has been found that when liberals can access some kind of perception that they are moving towards something, the depression gap between them and conservatives actually equalizes.[10] Similarly, this is why the Apostle Paul can give admonitions like “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving Christ” (Col. 3.23-24). This is also partially why Elijah becomes so downcast in 1 Kings 19 — because he felt his efforts against the prophets of Baal had come to nothing and he lacked an insurance policy from God. The religious life is one where our efforts mean something and we can know that the final blessed outcome is assured by One who rules all.

All of this suggests that if adolescent liberals are on average more prone to depression than adolescent conservatives, self-efficacy, religiosity, social media, and a few other variables (like socio-economic factors)[11] may jointly have something to do with it. Perhaps the current instantiation of American progressivism makes hope just a bit harder to grasp than conservatism. (This is different, by the way, then saying that the policy aims of American conservatism are preferable to those of liberalism). Of course, progressives might blame this lack of hope on the right for throwing a wrench in the wheel of progress. Regardless of whether that is true (Yglesias thinks conservatives and liberals have an even scorecard), it is exactly that kind of thinking that ironically reinforces the left’s victim narrative.

So what is to be done? Should progressives become more conservative? Maybe, but with American conservatism currently compromised itself, that seems as far-fetched as Tucker Carlson’s latest cold open. Rather, progressivism needs to find a way to feel that it is actually making meaningful progress and that such progress works towards a unified goal. To that end, perhaps progressivism should find religion. This might help reverse whatever negative mental feedback loop is occurring through the infusion of transcendent values and virtues into its philosophical foundations.

Yet instrumentalizing religion for political ends is a tenuous proposition at best and usually results in religion bending more than the party platform (as the modern right evidences). What is truly needed for progressivism (and conservatism, I might add) is an encounter with the living God. However, such an encounter would deconstruct progressivism to such an extent that it would hardly be recognizable by today’s standards. Its reconfiguration, however, would have it looking much more like the great successful progressive causes of old that did so much good for the West — abolition, civil rights, suffrage, and worker’s rights, among others — movements which, although not uniformly supported by the religious, were nonetheless buoyed by those captivated by a religious sense of devotion to God.

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[1] Beck, J. S. (2020). Cognitive behavioral therapy. 3rd ed. New York.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schlenker, B. R., Chambers, J. R. & Le, B. M. (2012). Conservatives are happier than liberals, but why? Political ideology, personality, and life satisfaction. Journal of Research in Personality, 46(2), 127-146.

[4] Butz, S., Kieslich, P. J., & Bless, H. (2017). Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Comparing different explanations based on system justification, multiple group membership, and positive adjustment. European Journal of Psychology, 47(3), 362-372.

[5] See Napier, J. L., & Jost, J. T. (2008). Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Psychological Science, 19(6), 565-72.

[6] Schlenker et al., (2012).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Briki, W., & Dagot, L. (2022). Conservatives are happier than liberals: The mediating role of perceived goal progress and flow experience—a pilot study. Current Psychology, 41(3), 1267-1278.

[11] Ibid.