Does our happiness impact how we vote? Research says yes — but so does our anger

Millions of Canadians will be showing up to vote in the federal election on Monday and their mood could have an impact on who they vote for.

CBC Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss looks at how emotions play into voting decisions

Millions of Canadians will be showing up to vote in the federal election on Monday, and their mood could have an impact on who they vote for. (Alvin Yu/CBC)

Millions of Canadians will be showing up to vote in the federal election on Monday and their mood could have an impact on who they vote for.

Emotional voting is a heavily studied topic and new data is throwing politicians for a loop all over the world. While issues such as the economy are easier to figure out, human emotions are much more volatile and complex.

I happen to enjoy a very interesting role on the UN Global Happiness Council Committee and our job is to look at the various ways subjective well-being affects our lives. One of my council members, George Ward, is a professor and scholar at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

He dug deep into happiness and its relationship to voting. He wrote about one study that claims if a local college football team wins two weeks before an election, the incumbent benefits. Conversely, a negative shock to well-being, such as widowhood, can change voting behaviour.

Recent widowers are 10 per cent less likely to support the incumbent and 11 per cent of recent widowers just won't vote.

Another study primed people for anger and found the subjects would fall on stereotypes and were less likely to learn about a candidate's platform when angry.

This is noteworthy because researchers have found a concerted rise over the past decade in levels of negative affect. Researchers describe negative affect as the feeling of negative emotions including anger, contempt, disgust, guilt, fear and nervousness.

Low negative affect is characterized by frequent states of calmness and serenity, along with states of confidence, activeness and great enthusiasm.

As negative affect rises and these theories play out, this could mean less willingness for voters to learn about what candidates stand for.

What is also noteworthy, is how our unhappiness coincides with increasing political polarization, specifically between nationalism and globalism.

Voters who tend to lean toward nationalism show higher negative affect. This is something we need to better understand because if well-being starts to decrease, voters may swap biases for real knowledge about the leaders they're electing.

And some impressive data has come out of Gallup, the UN and the World Values Survey that continues to prove that subjective well-being influences voting behaviour.

Issues vs. emotions

Gallup has conducted 2.6 million interviews since 2008 for their report and the World Values Survey has been pulling bi-annual data from 103 countries since the early 1980s.

From all this data, researchers have learned that people satisfied with their life are 1.6 per cent more likely to support the incumbent. This may seem like a small or insignificant number but contrast that with this: A 10 per cent increase in family income only offers a 0.18 per cent increase in an individual's support of the incumbent.

We can see the economy plays a role in voting behaviour, but well-being may actually play an even bigger role in how we vote.

Taking all of this into consideration, it's important for all of us to prioritize engagement in the political process.

And, the act of voting is good for our well-being. It's a pro-social behaviour that increases a sense of community and psychological safety. Voting also makes us feel altruistic, which is highly correlated to happiness.

About the Author

Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member.