Are Religious People Happier?


In the second chapter of Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America–and How We Can Get More of It, Arthur C. Brooks says the data shows that religious people are happier than secular people. He first mentions studies which show that people who attend church regularly report being happier than people who do not attend church regularly. He points out that this holds regardless of one’s particular religion. He writes, “A major 2000 survey revealed that observant Christians (Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and others) and Jews, along with members of a great many other religious traditions–even esoteric and new age faiths–were far more likely than secularists to say they were happy” (44). One thing that should pop out from this observation is that the happiness any religion brings you does not imply in any way that it is true. If different religions, disagreeing with each other on various matters, can all make people happier, then it’s not the truth of one religion over another that is making the difference. Instead, it must be a factor common to different religions.

He also points out a 2004 study which focuses on prayer rather than church attendance, which showed that people who pray every day report being very happy more often than people who did not pray every day. He mentions a 2002 study of Protestants and Catholics which showed that greater intensity of religious belief, a greater level or spirituality, and the tendency to cope with life problems using faith all contributed to happiness.

But he also points out that religion does not universally make people happier. He mentions a 2006 study in which researchers asked people to describe their conception of God.

They found that believers with a picture of God as loving and uncontrolling tended to be happier than those who saw Him as unloving and more controlling. In other words, if you had a severe religious upbringing full of hellfire, and you think it made you less happy, you’re probably right. (45)

This reveals that it is not just religion but a particular kind of religion that makes people happier. Religion is most likely to make people happier when it promises much and demands little. That seems unsurprising. If you believe that God is looking out for you, has prepared a place of eternal happiness for you, and loves you just the way you are without expecting you to change, it’s not hard to see how that is going to make you happier. But if you believe that God wants you to toe the line, is just waiting for you to slip up, and has prepared a place of eternal torment for those who do, your religion is likely to make you unhappier. In general, these results point toward liberal religion making people happier than strict, dogmatic religion. And it suggests that a religion without Hell at all, such as Universalism, is going to make people happier than one that retains Hell.

Speaking of Hell, he mentions that the people who are most scared of death toward the end of their lives are not unbelievers but people “who identify with a faith but rarely practice it” (45). These people are more unsure about what is going to happen to them at death. Otherwise, he says that the happiness of this group occupies a middle ground between that of religious people and that of secular people.

Another group of people occupying a middle ground are agnostics, whom he says “were even gloomier than the atheists” (46). Apparently, their uncertainty about the existence of God made them even unhappier than those who just discounted the idea of a God. I suppose some agnostics might be worried about Hell and lack the assurances of people who are convinced they know how to avoid it.

In looking at all this data, we have to understand that we cannot simply conclude that being religious makes people happier. For one thing, it is certain aspects of religion, not religion in all its forms, that correlates positively with people being happier. In particular, it is the promises religion makes people that tend to make them happier, not the threats that are often also part of religion. So it is the carrot of religion, not the stick, that tends to make religious people happier. There is also the question of what causes what. Positive correlation with happiness is not enough to prove causation. Brooks suggests it could be that happier people are more likely to be religious. He tells us that twin studies have shown that part of the reason people attend church can be explained genetically.

We must also consider the non-religious aspects of church attendance. People who go to church find themselves part of a community of friends and acquaintances they can regularly come to and rely on for support and comfort. Atheists tend not to have the same kind of social networking. Beyond membership in a local church community, there is membership in a larger community of like-minded people. In the United States at least, religious people are in the majority, and discrimination against people for being religious is not nearly as common as discrimination against people for being non-religious. In other words, religious Americans are part of an in-group, and secular Americans are not. I remember reading about studies which show that in Europe, where secular people are now in the majority, it is secular people who report being happier than religious people. So, being part of the accepted majority might go a long way toward making religious Americans happier.

Regardless, there are other aspects of religion that do seem to contribute to happiness. The most important ones mentioned by Brooks are church attendance, prayer, and faith. Church attendance provides community and social support. Prayer provides a sense of connection with someone, and it may have benefits similar to meditation. Faith gives people hope during troubling times with the assurance that someone is looking out for them, and it gives hope of a happy afterlife. Religious faith can also provide people with a sense of meaning in their lives. It shouldn’t be hard to understand how each of these can contribute to happiness.

Another difference between religion and atheism is that religion teaches morality and atheism does not. This is not to say that religion is more moral or that no atheists teach morality. It is just that organized religion has institutions established for spreading its version of morality, and atheism does not. If you are an atheist, you can’t just send your kids to atheist Sunday school to read about atheist heroes and learn about atheist morality. When it comes to learning morality, atheists are usually on their own. The thing is, morality helps people live happier lives. With more religious people being schooled in some version of morality, they are statistically likely to be happier than atheists.

None of this means that secular people need to become religious to be happier, but it does point out some directions secular people might look into to increase their happiness. One thing that would help is for secular people to form communities similar to church communities. Some secular people stop going to church simply because they no longer believe in the religion taught by the church, not because they no longer want to be part of a church community. Short of establishing the secular equivalent of churches, secular people might attend Unitarian Universalist churches, which are more open to secular beliefs, go to church for social rather than religious reasons, as some people do, or take classes. While secular people might not believe in someone they can pray to, they may gain many of the same benefits of daily prayer from daily meditation. Meditation generates joyful, blissful feelings that can greatly improve happiness, even for non-religious people. Even without faith in the power of a deity, secular people may still practice optimism. They may also have faith in human nature, which goes a long way toward making people happier. Even without relying on God or religion, secular people can make their lives meaningful.

Atheists may also study morality and reap its benefits. Although religious people often get a head start in learning morality, they may also be held back by the dogmatism of their religiously-based morality. For example, many religious people believe that birth control, masturbation, and homosexuality are sins, that you shouldn’t work on Sunday (or Saturday), and that it’s even sinful to be an atheist. Atheists have the advantage of being able to learn why morality matters, of basing morality on real values instead of authority, and of learning from different moral perspectives without concern that they’re straying from what is expected of them. And there are many good resources that atheists interested in morality can turn to. From the ancient Greeks to modern philosophers, there is a lot of good writing on morality. My own preference is to turn to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle understands ethics to be about virtue, which is about having the kind of character that makes you happy. In other words, Aristotle’s ethics is focused on how to be happy, not on how to please God to get into Heaven, not on how to be obedient to the will of a divine authority, but simply on how to be happy. Aristotle describes various character traits that promote happiness, and he describes how you can develop them. If you study Aristotle, it should go a long way toward helping you lead a happier life. I will also mention here that I have made some videos on Ethics, and my dissertation concerns itself with what makes a person evil. Understanding what evil is can shed light on ways to become happy, because evil people tend to be unhappy. It also includes a chapter on character with a section on Aristotle’s ethics.

Although religion does set conditions that help make religious people happier than they would otherwise be, one more thing to consider is that the data may be skewed. The data is based on surveys that ask people to rate their own levels of happiness. We should consider whether there are reasons, aside from happiness, that would account for one group reporting higher levels of happiness than the other. In her book Escape, Carolyn Jessup describes her life in a polygamist marriage in the FLDS (Fundamentalist Mormon) cult, and one of the things that the wives were expected to do was “keep sweet.” This was to pretend that they were happy no matter how they actually felt, and doing this actually made them more miserable. I understand that most religious people in the free world don’t suffer from such extreme demands, but there may be an expectation among religious people that their religion should be making them happy, and if they admit to being unhappy, they may feel like they’re being unfaithful. Atheists might feel the same way when they live under Communist regimes such as that in North Korea, or belong to cults of personality centering around atheist leaders like Ayn Rand, but Ayn Rand is dead, and the surveys weren’t given in Communist countries. So I expect that most of the atheists surveyed didn’t feel any expectation that they should be happy, and they didn’t feel disloyal to anyone for saying they were unhappy.

Although the data may be skewed, I do believe that religion does give people some advantages when it comes to happiness, and I recommend that secular people add some of the elements that make religious people happier to their own lives, such as community, meditation as a substitute for prayer, and an interest in morality. But I don’t believe that religious people have all the advantages. Secular people have a few advantages of their own. They don’t believe in Hell. They don’t believe in Original Sin. They don’t believe that various harmless activities are sinful just because God says so. Those who are non-religious by conscious decision, not just by default, are likely to be intellectually honest. But happiness is not something that comes automatically to you for being religious or non-religious. Statistics are only about groups of people, not about what you can do individually. The lesson to be learned here is not that you will become happier if you become religious. The lessons to be learned are the particular ways that religion helps make people happier and how you can use this knowledge to make your own life happier.

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Fergus Duniho
Former Christian, now a Humanist Freethinker with a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
Books on LibraryThing / Ph.D. Dissertation

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