On the morning after every election, millions of people whose side has lost start the day feeling down. And so it was for Labour supporters after the 2019 election when news of the large electoral victory of the Conservative Party saw many take to social media to share their despair.
Interestingly, the results of previous UK elections had no discernible effect on overall subjective wellbeing at a national level, but it’s a different story for people who strongly identify with a party. Recent research found that political partisans suffer a big drop in happiness when their party loses an election.
Supporters of a party who win an election tend to become happier. However, supporters of the winning side tend to only experience a small bump in their levels of happiness following the win. In contrast, those backing the losing party take a much bigger hit to their levels of happiness. This is not surprising. Psychologists have known for some time that we suffer from losses much more than we savour equivalent-sized gains.
The loser’s sense of misery can last much longer than a winner’s joy of victory. One analysis of the 2016 US presidential election found that Donald Trump’s victory gave people who voted for him a fairly short-lived rise in levels of happiness. However, within six months, the joy of victory had worn off. Supporters had returned to their levels of happiness before the election. In contrast, people who backed Hillary Clinton still reported feeling less happy six months after the election than they did before the election. Clinton supporters who spent more of their time consuming media fared the worst.
A 2015 study in Japan found that changes to people’s levels of happiness following an election loss only lasted for a few days. But the people who fared the worst tended to have unrealistic expectations about how their party would perform. This suggests that those who hoped for the most tended to fall the furthest.
Just not fair
The sense of misery that comes from losing an election can have wider impacts. When a party we identify with loses, we are likely to start questioning the legitimacy of the election process itself. This can undermine the loser’s trust in basic institutions of democracy. If we stop trusting our political institutions, we often start looking for alternative forums such as social movements to make ourselves heard.
The despair of electoral defeat has even bigger consequences for those standing for election. Losing candidates are faced with a big challenge to their sense of self. They need to come up with a way of preserving dignity in the face of defeat. To do this, they often shift blame from themselves to circumstances which are outside their control.
This may make someone feel better in the short term, but it may not help in the longer term. A recent study of closely run electoral races in the United States found that the losers live about one year less than the candidate who narrowly triumphed.
Deal with it
Dealing with the disappointment that comes from a political loss can be hard. The late sociologist and psychoanalyst Iain Criab noticed there were some big problems with the way we dealt with disappointments in the modern world. When faced with disappointment, many people disengaged. They would distance themselves from what they had previously cared about and shift their hopes elsewhere.
For instance, following a political defeat, a party activist might switch their dreams for a better world from party work into community activism. While this would bring them a temporary sense of solace, Craib noticed that it often left many trapped in a pattern of disappointment.
This meant they would go from project to project, relationship to relationship, without ever really questioning their own hopes and fantasies. Because they never faced up to their disappointments, they remained trapped in an endless cycle which often ended with despair, disengagement and the search for something new.
To get out of this cycle, Craib thought people needed to confront their own disappointments. We need to ask what it teaches us about who we are, what we value and what we can change. Doing that in a serious way, Craib thought, was how we could transform the disappointment of defeat into an opportunity to reflect, recalibrate with the new reality and eventually move on.