The Trump “unhappiness” effect nears the Great Recession for many

The 2016 election startled many: On the one hand, it laid bare the depths of frustration among uneducated poor white people in the heartland; on the other, it ushered in the specter of an era that may be dominated by racism, nativism, intolerance, and a reversal in progress on equal rights. From the heartland to the cities and the coasts and from the educated to the non-educated, America seems more divided than it has in decades.

This deep division and profound uncertainty take the form of unhappiness, fear, anger, stress, and worry among significant segments of society, which are difficult to measure with traditional income-based metrics. Well-being metrics allow us to assess individuals’ life satisfaction, optimism about the future, happiness at the moment, stress, anger, and worry. A first cut at assessing the differential well-being costs across Democrats, Republicans, and Independents for the last six months of 2016, based on the Gallup Healthways data set, reveals stark trends.

As Figure 1 shows, weekly average life satisfaction following the election (week 45) remained roughly stable for Republicans, with some modest up and down blips. In contrast, among Democrats, life satisfaction fell from a high of 7.3 (on a 0-10 scale) two weeks before the election to a low of 6.7 in the weeks following, recovering only modestly by the end of the year (which may be a holiday uptick) and then falling again. Independents—which includes those who report to be Independents but excludes those with no affiliation—mirror those of the Democrats, with some differences across the categories (see figures below).

Figure 1: Weekly average life satisfaction by party identification (2016)

global_20170202_life satisfactionNotes: 1) The graph does not cover the first 23 weeks of 2016, as there were roughly ten times more missing observations in the first six months of the year – in practice, this means starting at the beginning of week 24, which corresponded to June 10, 2016. In addition, we later compare these trends to those in the first six months of the financial crisis. 2) The trends among Independents display greater variation than those of the other two groups; this may in part be due to the smaller number of observations for the former group.

Even more stark are the trends in optimism about the future—based on a question that asks respondents how satisfied they will be with their lives in the future (on the same 0-10 scale). As Figure 2 shows, Republicans experienced a drop in optimism prior to the election and then a substantial increase afterwards. But much more extreme are the trends among Democrats, whose optimism fell from a high of 8.1 before the election to a low of 7.5 after, with a very modest recovery by the end of the year. In this instance, Independents experienced an even steeper drop than Democrats after the election.

This drop is almost as large as the ten percent drop in national happiness after the onset of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Normally, happiness rarely moves more than a 10th of a point or two over month- or year-long intervals. These drops among Democrats and Independents are steep in both comparative and historical terms. Even though the weekly data is naturally noisier (e.g., varies more reflecting short-term movements and smaller sample sizes), this is still an unusually large drop. At the time of the financial crisis, when people were experiencing actual monetary losses, happiness was falling as steep as the stock market was. In the case of the 2016 election, markets were rising and there were not any immediate financial losses related to the election, making the comparable drop even more remarkable.

Figure 2: Weekly average future life satisfaction by party identification (2016)


These trends are also mirrored in a marker of ill-being—reporting to have experienced stress the previous day. As Figure 3 shows, the same dichotomy holds across Republicans and Democrats. Democrats, who are typically more stressed and less happy than Republicans, had significantly increased stress levels leading up to and after the election, and then fell a bit a few weeks later (corresponding to both Thanksgiving and Christmas). While there are some swings throughout 2016, particularly for Independents, the increased stress for Democrats after the election is the sharpest move in stress during the entire period shown.

These findings are consistent for Democrats, Independents, and Republicans despite different regions, income, or age groups (which we control for in our econometric analysis). Equally important, this is an analysis of changes in the average levels across respondents of different party identification, rather than a comparison across socio-economic or racial groups. For example, in earlier work we showed large gaps in well-being between poor and uneducated whites and poor blacks and Hispanics, with the latter two being much more optimistic and resilient, while poor whites having high levels of desperation and stress. Our analysis here is simply the changes in the average levels across party affiliations in the aftermath of the election, and do not reflect the differences across income and racial groups.

Figure 3: Weekly average stress incidence by party identification (2016)

global_20170202_average stress incidence

In the case of the financial crisis, national average happiness levels recovered to their previous levels by the end of the year, and in particular when the markets stabilized in March of 2009. While we cannot predict what will happen in the current situation, a recovery is unlikely in a climate of continued political uncertainty and division. In general, uncertainty and conflict are among the strongest factors underlying unhappiness across a wide range of countries.

At the same time, recent activities—such as the post-inauguration day marches and other demonstrations around the country—may be a good sign for well-being. In general, activities such as socializing, volunteering, and purposeful work are among the strongest positive correlates of well-being. Perhaps a message of solace for those who are currently unhappy and worried is to get active, organize, and work on productive solutions to the current state of divided politics, angry rhetoric, and social division. At times, temporary frustration and unhappiness can serve as a drive for positive change (and higher levels of well-being in the future).