Bryan Caplan  

Are Extremists Really Happier?: The Case of Katrina vanden Heuvel

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Arthur Brooks says that political extremists are happier than moderates. While he tells an interesting story, this seems like a case where overall life evaluations might yield a very different answer than time diaries or beeper studies. Consider this striking excerpt from an interview with The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel:

Tomdispatch: Tell me something about your daily life at the magazine. I'm sure you're understaffed, under-everythinged. But what's it like to spend a day as the Nation's editor and publisher, beginning to end?

Katrina vanden Heuvel: I begin the day by reading from three to five papers. By then I'm already so agitated… [She laughs.] Anyway, I start with the Washington Post, then I do the New York Times, then parts of the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian. Then I look at the Web. I'll read Tompaine, Commondreams, Romenesko, Tomdispatch, Juan Cole, Alternet, the Huffington Post, James Wolcott's blog, Jay Rosen's PressThink, sometimes Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo or the Daily Kos. Just kind of absorbing as much as I can. Then the trick is to be an editor who's outraged by what's going on, but remains humane and sane as a watchdog.

At least at face value, it sounds like vanden Heuvel spends an hour every day being angrier than most people get in a month. She may say she's a happy person (I've never met her, but it wouldn't surprise me), but a big chunk of her waking hours overflow with negative emotion. If that's what happiness is, I think I'd rather be miserable.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Selfreferencing writes:

Are you nuts?! You're a libertarian! You LOVE being surrounded by evil foes!

liberty writes:

I must say that in my experience the left-wing (statist) extremists are much less happy than the libertarian extremists. Not sure about the social-con types.

Back when I was a left-wing extremist (and this is still true of my friends who remain that way) we also would spend most of the day angry, reading our Nation magazine or Chomsky or Z Magazine or whatever, listening to Pacifica Radio, getting angrier and angrier, thinking up ways to rally the masses.

Libertarians, on the other hand, dream up island libertarian Utopias but don't seem to get that angry at the current state of things. We are saddened by the world's evils, but not angry, somehow.

For me it was the most wonderful, fulfilling, anxiety-easing revelation I'd ever had, when I realized that capitalism wasn't the great evil I'd thought it was. Suddenly the world wasn't hopeless, all modern humanity wasn't the enemy. All Americans weren't moronic and robotic slaves of the system. I felt connected to the modern world for the first time.

The left have the whole world on their shoulders, and are burdened by an impossible dream and the guilt of being part of the problem, with no escape from it.

So, in short, all extremists aren't equally happy. It very much depends on what they believe.

Phil writes:

Being outraged is not the same thing as being unhappy. Outrage can be part of a balanced, happy lifestyle, can't it? I'd be a pretty unhappy person if I didn't get outraged every day.

James A. Donald writes:

Left extremists tend to be self hating, and self haters are extremely unhappy, often to extent of being high functioning insane.

Anti semites also tend to be extremely unhappy, but the kind of person who is focused on his own ethnic group, and thinks all others are unimportant and inferior, and devoid of interest, tends to be fairly happy. An anti semite thinks Jews are important, diabolicly clever, and are successfully getting him down, and he stews about it.

Gun rights extremists are the the happiest and friendliest lot that I have encountered. The really happy guy is the gun fanatic who thinks no more about Mexicans and Negroes than he thinks about frogs - he thinks they are inferior, unimportant, and not terribly bright, but is ever willing to give them a helping hand, in the same spirit of kindly condescension as he might give frog a helping hand.

ivan writes:

Is Noam Chomsky the happiest person in the world? Was Marx happy?

dearieme writes:

If she reads The Guardian every day, she either is nuts or soon will be.

Pigeonholer writes:

What I hate about the undying "outrage" of the left is that it often seems forced: every passing humvee simply must be levied its appointed censure, otherwise you are betraying that uniquely liberal sense of activism (which we all know is more of an attitude than a philosophy).

The vanden Heuvels are just one genre of the left, but unfortunately they've kicked and screamed their way into the image-generating core of the democratic party. There are plenty of happy, guilt-free "social liberals" that make up the fat of the democratic base - people that I think, incidentally, would tend towards libertarianism if they cared enough about politics to learn some econ. I associate a lot with these people, however, so I'm glad they don't take much interest in politics.

Mensarefugee writes:

Anger is one step above despair. Which is what a rational observer would be about many things in politics.

AbuHatem writes:

I have a huge knack for political theory at heart. Vanden Heuvel sounds very angry. People who are extreme and angry eventually become parts of a semi-revolutionary ideology. The definition of "conservatism" however, at least Burkean classical conservatism, is the opposition to radicalism and revolution.

Extremism defeats people. Utopianism is the key to many evils. Whatever political ideology one belongs to should be done with the expectation that one will correct as much as possible, make things a little better, but not achieve perfection. I think the happiest of people are traditional conservatives because they don't mind the status quo and oppose the angers of radicalism.

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