Referendums are supposed to make people happy. Why are even leave voters upset?

June 30, 2016

I write this column about happiness research from my home in Oxford, England, where the mood is worse than I have ever experienced. Like Scotland and Northern Ireland, and many cities in England and Wales, Oxford voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the European Union — by a margin of 40 percentage points.

 

Even so, in social science theory, referendums are supposed to make people feel happier. But for reasons that go beyond political divisions, Brexit is making many Britons everywhere glum. Well outside the strongholds that voted to remain, we’re seeing angry, violent outbursts from certain leave voters and expressions of regret and sadness from others. Why is that?

 

There are two reasons why referendums are supposed to raise aggregate happiness. The first is that direct democracy gives voters a sense of satisfaction that the system is fair and responsive to their preferences. In a referendum, political representation is neither skewed by the makeup of electoral districts, nor by additional incentives weighing on elected politicians. The second reason is that the process of collective decision-making is itself thought to be a source of positivity, perhaps because voters feel more connected to their communities.

 

Data from a European – but non-EU – country bears this out. About half of all national referendums held in the world during the 20th century were held in Switzerland. This year, the Swiss have already voted on issues ranging from the building of a road tunnel, to taxation for married couples, to changes to asylum laws.

 

In this land of referendums, the parts of Switzerland that hold the most referendums are the happiest, even when the effect of other common influences on happiness are statistically removed (like marital status and unemployment). The size of the happiness boost from direct democracy in Switzerland is even bigger than what is gained by living in the country’s top income category instead of the bottom one.

 

But that feels poles apart from the Brexit experience.

 

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