Stressed out by this year’s election? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Therapy appointments actually increase during election years. And given the media circus surrounding the 2016 race, our nation’s mental health professionals have their work cut out for them.
Luckily, heading to the polls this November won’t just put us out of our collective political misery, but also help restore our mental equilibrium. In fact, the simple act of voting - and civic engagement in general - actually improves our mental health and makes us happier.
In a 2009 study published in Political Psychology, researchers Malte Klar and Tim Kasser surveyed 344 college students and 718 adults about their level of political activism, of which voting is a significant part. Subjects were asked how engaged they were in activism (performing activities like writing letters to political officials) and how much they identified as an activist.
After controlling for demographic factors, they found that the participants who scored higher in political activism reported higher levels of personal well-being. Their scores were associated with “feeling more pleasant emotions, reporting greater life satisfaction, and having more experiences of freedom, competence, and connection to others.”
To reinforce this causality, Klar and Kasser had students write letters to their college dining services. One group wrote letters on the “hedonistic” aspects of the food, such as its taste, while the other addressed the ethical and political aspects of their meals. The students who took the political angle reported feeling more alert, energized, and alive than those who took the hedonistic approach.
Civic engagement makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it also helps us strengthen our ties with our communities. Julio Rotemberg, an economist at Harvard University, believes that voting helps us feel connected to people with whom we agree. His theory is based on two assumptions: That we tend to act more altruistically towards people with similar points-of-view, and that our personal well-being improves when others share our opinions.
This explains why voter turnout is higher during close elections. Voters are eager to have their choice validated while also validating the opinions of people who support the same candidate. In lopsided elections, voters who pick a dark horse candidate feel encouraged to vote as an act of support for the few others who share their view.
Moreover, voting is an important ingredient in building social capital, or the degree to which people actively participate in their communities and how much trust and mutual aid exist within these communities. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes, “the culture in which people talk to each other over the back fence is the culture in which people vote.” We vote, then, to strengthen our social ties. And having a robust social network is linked to both longer lives and healthier communities.
Now consider the consequences of not voting. According to a 2001 study in the American Journal of Public Health, people living in states with low voter turnout were 62% more likely to self-rate their health as just poor or fair compared to those living in states with high voter turnout. More specifically, people who lived in states with a greater difference in turnout between higher- and lower-income residents were 54% more likely to self-rate their health as poor or fair than those living in more egalitarian states. Not surprisingly these states also exhibited greater income inequality and fewer programs that would benefit the happiness of the many rather than agendas of the few.
Sure, voting won’t cure cancer or lower your risk of diabetes (although supporting candidates with robust healthcare policies will certainly help), but it’s sure to boost your happiness and the well-being of the people around you. If that’s not enough to put a spring in your step at least consider this: no more political ads.