06/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Abortion, Health Care and the Psychology of Compromise

It is a dangerous time to compromise in the U. S. government. A Republican working with Obama is dead meat in the next primary. A Democrat who works with Republicans? Well, you saw what happened to Joe Lieberman the last time he ran as a Democrat.

Politicians are understandably worried that if they collaborate across the aisle, their political careers will soon end. They fear losing their next election.

But their fears are misplaced, at least from my perspective as a researcher who has studied the kinds of ways people mis-predict what will make themselves happy or miserable.

People frequently overestimate the emotional impact of adversity. Early-career professors imagine that if they fail to receive tenure they'll be miserable the rest of their lives, even though long-term studies show that tenured positions have no impact on well-being. Making these same mistakes, elected officials assume that if they lose the next election, they will be miserable. In making these mis-predictions, they focus too narrowly on the feelings they will experience as the results of their election loss trickle in -- the shame of failure, the challenge of telling staff that they'll have to find new jobs, and the misery of giving up all that power and prestige.

But what happens to legislators after they lose elections? Remember, these are often very talented people, with large social networks and often with access to lots of money, through previously accumulated fortunes or through the business connections they have developed in office. These people more than land on their feet again. Most of them thrive. They live extremely full lives, working at the intersection of business and government. From what I've seen, I'd guess that most of them are happier than they were when they were in the government. I mean, look at those cool eyeglasses Tom Daschle started wearing after he lost his reelection campaign. And how about Al Gore and his Nobel Prize!

Indeed, I would go a step further in characterizing politicians' mis-predictions. Most imagine, incorrectly, that losing the next election will make them miserable. Instead, I'd guess that doing what it takes to get reelected is really what will make them miserable.

That brings us to Bart Stupak, Democratic Congressman from Michigan -- notable for his social conservativeness. When Stupak considered whether to vote for health care reform legislation, he found himself attacked from the left for focusing too much on making sure that such reforms did not expand federal funding for abortions. And he found himself attacked from the right, for supporting Obama's "socialist" agenda. By looking for middle ground, a compromise, he set himself up for a very difficult election campaign.

But he didn't care. He thought the legislation was important enough that he was going to do what he thought was right, even if that made everyone angry. And now, he is retiring, rather than face a brutal reelection campaign. Here is my prediction: he will soon be a very happy man. He will be able to look back on the end of his political career convinced that he acted on principle to do what he thought was best for the country, regardless of the political consequences of those same actions.

By caring more about his country than he cared about his political fortunes, Stupak has taken a large step towards living a happy and fulfilled life.

Let that be a lesson to all his colleagues, as they fret over their next reelection campaign.