Are Politics Making Your Life Miserable? One Study Suggests Yes

Jan. 26, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Professor Kevin Smith in a blue shirt with a red and blue striped tie in front of a background with photos of others on it.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Political Science professor Kevin Smith. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Smith)

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In 2017, University of Nebraska Lincoln Political Science professor Kevin Smith co- authored a study that asked a random sample of 800 people whether politics was a significant stressor in their lives. Categories covered physical health, mental health, regretted behavior, and social and lifestyle costs. For about 40% of respondents, the answer was yes. Last year, Smith issued the survey again to a different group of people, two weeks before and two weeks after the 2020 election, to see how things have changed. And he found, for the most part, people are as stressed out as ever about politics. William Padmore of Nebraska Public Media News discussed the findings with Smith.

William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News: What inspired you to want to ask this question about stress in politics?

Kevin Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor: Well, there had been some previous research out there, suggesting that people were getting stressed by politics. The American Psychological Association, for example, had done a survey, I believe it was in 2016, that basically asked if politics was a significant source of stress. And there was also some anecdotal evidence after the 2016 election, coming from therapists suggesting that more people were pointing towards politics as at least a partial cause of their mental health issues. And that got us to thinking like, you know, can political interest and engagement really be pathological? I mean, do people see engaging in politics as something that could exact a serious, kind of across-the-board negative toll?

William Padmore: Now, I might have spoiled it a little bit at the top, but can you talk about the main takeaways of the renewed study?

Kevin Smith: Significant numbers of Americans do indeed view politics as exacting a pretty stiff price on their emotional, social, and even physical health. And that the people who tend to feel these effects the most are people who are younger. People who are more leaning towards the left, politically, and people who are more politically interested and engaged.

William Padmore: Why were young politically engaged, left-leaning people, the most afflicted? Can that be drawn specifically to President Trump's time in office or is that inconclusive from the study?

Kevin Smith: We really don't have the data to address that. I mean, we don't have anything prior to the Trump administration to compare this to so we can’t say with any degree of confidence that this was a causal effect of the Trump era. And, you know, some of those correlates that I just pointed out, I mean, there's some fairly obvious explanations. I think, for example, if you were on the political left during the Trump administration, I mean, that probably was a little more stressful than if, you know, it would have been the Obama administration, for example, but whether these things sort of like disappeared after the Trump administration, which we really don't know.

William Padmore: Do you expect to see similar problems for Republican voters to President Biden's time in office?

Kevin Smith: That’s a really good, that's a really good question. I mean, we don't have data to address this. Although I mean, it seems like a reasonable hypothesis, right? If there is a change in political power, and a different political party is more in control of the various levers of government, it makes sense that members of the other party would be a little bit more stressed out by that. But again, I've got to emphasize that we really don't know. I was trying to get at that question. I gave the survey to a sample of people about two weeks before the 2020 election. And then I went back to those same people two or three weeks after the election and asked them the same questions. And what I was aiming at was, well, if Biden wins, would that sort of like shift attitudes pre and post-election? And that indeed did happen. But you know, if everyone can remember what was going on in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, you know, you had, the president was calling into question the legitimacy of the election and it was it was kind of a high-stress time for everyone. So that experiment really didn't work out the way I wanted it to really get it an answer to the question that you're asking. What we would need to do is take a couple of surveys this year, and see how they compare to what we found in 2020.

William Padmore: And these results, do they confirm that politics does have a negative impact on people's lives? Or just the perception that they think it does? And is there even a meaningful difference? I don't mean to get philosophical on you.

Kevin Smith: You know, actually, that's a really good question, and I'm glad you asked it because one of the things that I want to emphasize is I am not a clinician, this shouldn't be construed in any way as a diagnosis on anyone's mental health. And I'm certainly not trying to engage in any armchair psychology. And, you know, making any declarations about, you know, America has got some serious mental health issues related to politics. What this does say is that Americans themselves perceive politics as affecting these negative polls. You know, the survey is basically a self-report, kind of a deal. And tens of millions of Americans are saying, things like, politics is stressing me out, it's making me fatigued, it's leading to the loss of friendships that I value, it's leading me to engage in kind of like compulsive behaviors that I regret later. And that doesn't prove that politics caused these things. But what it certainly suggests is that many people think politics cause them.

William Padmore: So at the end of the day, is the main thing we should take away, maybe chill out on the 24-hour news cycles, or the podcast and everything else political in our lives, should Americans be less engaged in politics for the sake of their mental health?

Kevin Smith: It’s kind of like the $64,000 question, right? And for a political scientist, it is kind of a conundrum. I mean, you put a study out there that says, engaging in politics and paying attention to politics takes a toll on your mental health. And the obvious way to mitigate that is not to pay any attention to politics. But a liberal democracy depends upon informed and engaged citizens. So I certainly don't want to do that. So, how do you square that circle? How do you get people to engage in politics in a constructive, in an effective way, but also in a way where they don't perceive it as being this chronic source of stress in their lives that is degrading their mental health? And unfortunately, I'm not sure that I have a terrific answer to that question. I mean, the one kind of light at the end of the tunnel there that the data did give some hints at is that people with higher levels of political knowledge, and here I'm talking about knowledge about the system and how it works, not knowledge of current events. They did seem to feel these effects less. So maybe one way to mitigate it is, I don't know take a civics class or something.