Terrible Study Finds “Woke” People are Depressed

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Are you anxious and/or depressed? Have you tried everything from exercise to SSRIs to psychedelics only to find no relief from the relentless torment of your own brain? Well, have I got a solution for you: don’t be “woke!” Just stop being like that! Go back to sleep! Stop paying attention to what’s happening in the world! There. Isn’t that better?

Study: “Woke” attitudes linked to anxiety, depression, and a lack of happiness, says PsyPost this week. Or, as the New York Post put it, “”Woke’ people more likely to be unahppy, anxious and depressed, new study suggests.”

These headlines come from a study published just last week in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, titled “Construction and validation of a scale for assessing critical social justice attitudes.” As always, links to everything I talk about in every video on this channel can be found in the transcript, available for free to everyone over on my Patreon. Link to that is down in the doobly doo.

Now, you may already see a potential issue with taking this study’s results and applying them to the people who invented and popularized the word “woke,” i.e.,  Black Americans: this study was Scandinavian. A Finnish psychologist developed a “woke” scale he could give to 5,000 Finnish people to determine how woke they are, and he compared that to how anxious or depressed or happy they said they were. He found that “wokeness” was weakly associated with anxiety and depression, and negatively associated with happiness.

This is in no way a surprising result. “Woke” has been twisted into a dismissive buzzword that conservatives use to criticize anything they don’t like, but this study’s author started with the following definition: “specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.”

Which I think is fair enough. This definition is pretty clearly going to be applied almost exclusively to more “liberal” or progressive people, and we have reams of data suggesting that, yeah, more liberal people tend to be less happy than more conservative people.

And sure enough, this current study simply supports that past research: yes, there was weak evidence for connecting “wokeness” and poor mental health, but “lower level of mental well-being was mostly associated with being on the political left and not specifically with having a high (critical social justice attitude scales) score.” But you can’t really publish a paper just supporting what a hundred studies have shown before, so instead he took the very weak correlation with “wokeness” and not only got published but also got some great publicity in the US rightwing press.

I’ll say that even though this study isn’t shocking, the scale the author came up with is, in fact, terrible, which is why I suspect he didn’t get a more impressive result. After much studying and surveying and refining, here are the statements he came up with to score people on their level of wokeness:

“If white people have on average a higher level of income than black people, it is because of racism.”

“University reading lists should include fewer white or European authors.”

“Microaggressions should be challenged often and actively.”

“Trans* women who compete with women in sports are not helping women’s rights.” (reverse scored)

“We don’t need to talk more about the color of people’s skin.” (reverse scored)

“A white person cannot understand how a black person feels equally well as another black person.”

“A member of a privileged group can adopt features or cultural elements of a less privileged group.” (reverse scored)

Maybe it’s better in Finnish, but here in the US this scale is bordering on nonsensical. I would have no idea if I agree or disagree with “We don’t need to talk more about the color of people’s skin.” Do trans women “help women’s rights” by competing with cis women in sports? Are there cases in which a random white person understands a random black person equally or even better than another random black person? Like, I’m pretty sure that one of my “woke” beliefs is that all black people are not the same.

If these questions are anywhere near as confusing in Finland as they are in the United States, that’s a great way to explain a result in which they got a strong correlation for people on the left and mental health problems but only a weak correlation for “woke” people and mental health problems. That also explains the other result that surprised the study author, which was that there were way fewer “woke” respondents than he thought he’d get. Maybe if you asked clearer questions, you would have found a few more. In fact, this study actually found the strongest correlation between “wokeism” and mental health problems with the clearest statement on the survey: “If white people have on average a higher level of income than black people, it is because of racism.”

All of this brings me back to the fact that, yeah, research suggests that the further left you are, the greater chance that you have depression, anxiety, and/or less happiness compared to people further to the right. The interesting question to ask next is simply, “Why?”

It’s a tremendously complicated question, because there are so many factors that can come into play. Some researchers have looked for a genetic link: something in our genes that makes us BOTH more likely to be progressive AND more likely to have poor mental health.

Other data suggests that it all may be due to a confounding factor – a third unknown that could make someone more likely to be both liberal and depressed, or conservative and happy. Religion is one such possible cause, in that a very religious person may be both more happy (because they think an omnipotent being has their back) and more conservative (because the same omnipotent being hates gay people). Or, there’s the hypothesis that you can’t even study this problem using self-reported data, because conservatives are more likely to have a bias against mental health problems, meaning that they are less likely to admit that they’re anxious or depressed compared to liberals.

And of course there’s the confounding factor of actually experiencing injustice yourself, which is why it’s more likely that people from marginalized backgrounds are more likely to be liberal and also more likely to be less happy. An interesting study from 2022 examined the political orientation and mental health of more than 86,000 American teenagers between 2005 and 2018. They found that depression rose for pretty much all of them, but it rose the fastest for those who identified as liberal compared to conservative, and fastest of all for liberal girls from low-income families. “Broad-reaching phenomena, such as worsening climate change or school shootings may impact mental health for all adolescents,” the authors write, “while social injustices like sexism, which gained media attention through the #MeToo movement, may be felt most acutely by those personally affected.”

The authors further suggest that “left-leaning teens may have been deeply affected by Donald Trump’s election as president, the US Supreme Court’s subsequent lurch to the right, rising socioeconomic inequality, and worsening political polarization. “Liberal adolescents may have therefore experienced alienation within a growing conservative political climate such that their mental health suffered in comparison to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were flourishing,” they write.

As an interesting aside, while conservative students tended to be happier over all, they found that this boost was NOT enjoyed by conservatives from underprivileged groups, “who are potentially less inclined to interpret their own experiences of inequality as systemic in nature versus resulting from personal inadequacy.”

In my unprofessional opinion, I think that all of that plays a role, but also that there is a straight causal relationship between having a progressive outlook, in which I care deeply about the plight of other people around the world even if they are very different from me, and in which I actively try to improve those lives by fighting against people who actively are trying to make their lives worse or even kill them, directly leads to me having a bit less happiness and serenity. By definition. We have a very common saying that describes this phenomenon: ignorance is bliss. Or

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

As “Pope, Alexander” once wrote. I am probably a little sadder, on average, than a randomly chosen alt-right Christian, for the same reason why I’m probably sadder than my dog. It’s just a difference of degree.

So sure, conservative outlets like the New York Post can brag that they’re happier than me all they want. Because first of all, despite my opening in this video, I can’t just decide to improve my mental health by becoming a conservative. I can’t just stop caring about other people, the same way I can’t get the happiness boost that religious people enjoy by suddenly deciding to start believing in a god. 

And second of all, even if I COULD do that, I wouldn’t. I will gladly sacrifice a tiny fraction of my own happiness, which is ABUNDANT because I live an incredibly lucky and awesome life, in order to try to help the people who don’t have 1% of what I have. Because that’s what it means to be a progressive humanist, instead of a selfish creature who expects cheese to magically fall from the sky because he deserves it just for existing.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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