Damaged friendships, ruined family reunions, disrupted workplaces, the emotional toll of frustration, remorse, anguish, and the physical burden of stress and loss of sleep; these are all things that can be attributed to political differences, and may be the underlying cause of a number of health problems.
A recent study, led by political scientists Kevin Smith and John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, and Matthew Hibbing of the University of California, has found that people are experiencing physical, emotional, and social costs as a result of engaging with politics. Unlike traditional studies, which tend to focus on the economic costs often associated with people who are politically engaged, their research focuses on the consequences that political exposure has had on their physical health, mental wellbeing, and even their personal relationships.
The results suggest some alarming effects on the welfare of people who are politically involved, especially following the 2016 election in the United States, which led to a rise in political polarization in the U.S. and spreading to other Western countries, like Canada. As the researchers note, “in the wake of the 2016 election, clinical psychologists reported a jump in mental health pathologies directly attributed to politics—what the media have termed ‘election stress disorder.’”
To conduct this study, data was collected by YouGov for five days in March 2017, amassing 800 respondents. To create representative samples, YouGov used a panel of 1.8 million people. Since this study was the first of its kind, the questionnaire was developed by mirroring diagnostic instruments used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. For example, a question such as, “Does [your drinking] ever cause you to have difficulty sleeping?” would be modified in the survey to be, “I have lost sleep because of politics,” with response categories ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
The researchers drafted 32 such items designed to explore the perceived impact of politics in four main categories, including physical health, emotional health, regretted behavior, and social/lifestyle costs. The survey included variables designed to capture a wide range of individual traits and characteristics such as socio-demographics, personality, political attitudes, political knowledge, political interests, and political activity.
The researchers designed the sample to be representative of the approximately 248 million adults living in the United States. With regards to physical health, nearly 40 per cent of respondents, an estimated 94 million people, believe they experience stress as a result of politics. Roughly a fifth, or what would translate to approximately 44 million people, report losing sleep, being fatigued, or suffering depression because of politics. More than 10 per cent, or what would be 28.5 million people, report non-specific physical health issues related to politics. Roughly four per cent, or an estimated 11 million people, indicate they have considered suicide as a result of politics.
In terms of emotional welfare, approximately 10 to 30 per cent of the population believed that politics took an emotional toll on them, by triggering anger, frustration, hate, guilt, or by leading them to make comments that they later regretted. Another roughly 10 to 25 per cent of people reported thinking, caring, and focusing on politics more than they want, saying and writing things they later regret, making bad decisions, ignoring other priorities, and feeling empty at the end of major political events. Approximately 29 per cent of the population said they’ve lost their temper as a result of politics.
In regards to social costs, the study found that about one in five people reported that politics had damaged friendships and created problems with family, friends, and within the home. About five per cent of respondents believed politics led to financial or legal problems, or caused them to miss time at work or school.
In addition, the study found that Democrats, self-identified liberals, those who are socially and economically liberal, and people who disapprove of President Donald Trump are more likely to report negative health impacts as a result of politics. Beyond left-right orientation, other political factors are also associated with negative health impact. For example, those who frequently discuss politics and who report being more involved in politics were also more likely to score higher on all indexes.
While it is undeniable that democratic governance brings benefits to our collective and personal well-being, it is also true, as this study shows, that it can have negative consequences on the relationships and health of many people. Research like this allows us to acknowledge this problem and gain insight into this phenomenon, which in turn can lead to solutions to address this problem.
As the researchers note, “only by identifying, measuring, and analyzing the personal costs of open, democratic politics will it be possible to ameliorate them.” The health and social costs discussed in the study have real impacts on a person’s quality of life, as well as their physical and mental wellbeing. We as a society must continue to research and utilize resources like this to come to terms with the issue if we are to alleviate these costs while continuing to live and engage in a political world as informed and active democratic citizens.