Religion and happiness: not as simple as it seems
- Published on 11 August 2011
- Written by Connor Wood
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It’s been accepted that religion is associated with subjective well-being, a type of happiness that measures how good people feel inwardly. Subjective well-being doesn’t take into account outward measures like financial success, family circumstances, or health; it only measures how good people say they feel, whether they live in the meanest ghetto or a high-rise penthouse. Generally, of course, people who live in better circumstances report higher subjective well-being, but that’s not always the case – a persons’s sense of well-being might derive from a variety of intellectual, social, and spiritual factors, not just material ones.
In surveys conducted in the United States, religious people generally have reported higher subjective well-being than the non-religious, leading many experts to claim that religion enhances people’s happiness and satisfaction with life. However, a new report by Ed Diener, Louis Tay (both at the University of Illinois), and David G. Myers (Hope College) shows that this effect is modulated by the economic and social conditions of individual states and countries. In the U.S., the states that endure the harshest economic realities are also the most religious, such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana – the three most religious states in the Union. Conversely, the states with the strongest economies and best social safety nets are, by and large, not particularly religious.
Diener, Tay, and Myers also found that adverse life circumstances seemed to boost religiosity while decreasing well-being. This meant that the statistics actually showed a negative correlation between religiosity and happiness overall, since people with difficult lives tended to both be more unhappy and more religious. However, when the researchers controlled for life difficulty, religiousness again predicted happiness. In other words, people with difficult lives tended to be more unhappy – but of those people, the ones with religious commitments were happier than those without.
These complex results were mirrored in a larger study, published in the same paper, that took data from all over the world. This larger study showed that countries suffering from poor economic conditions also tended to be highly religious, with countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South America generally ranking as the most religious overall. Meanwhile, highly developed countries, particularly Scandinavian nations such as Denmark and Sweden, were significantly less religious. Indeed, fewer than one in five Scandinavians reported being religious.
In countries where conditions were bad but religiosity high, being religious was a significant predictor of well-being, suggesting that religion may help protect people against the negative effects of societal poverty and chaos. And in general, social conditions predicted religiosity much better than individual conditions. In other words, it isn’t necessarily what’s happening in your own life that makes you more or less likely to pray to Allah or go to church – it’s how well your society is doing as a whole. Countries where conditions aren’t good have more religious people, on average, than their better-off peers, and those people tend to do better and be happier – even though they live in difficult circumstances – than their irreligious neighbors.
In wealthy countries like those of Northern Europe, most people reported fairly high levels of well-being, and there was relatively difference between the religious and the non-religious. However, even in well-to-do nations, religiosity strongly predicted purpose and meaning in life, with the irreligious reporting less overall meaning. Strangely, though, having less purpose and meaning did not seem to affect the happiness levels in wealthy nations of non-religious people. Diener, Tay, and Myers suggest that having purpose and meaning is mainly important for unhappy people or those with difficult life circumstances. When things are going well in life, it doesn’t particularly matter whether you feel that your life has purpose – you’re too busy being happy to notice.
While religion all over the world seemed to bolster people’s well-being, social support, and sense of purpose in life, these effects were by far the strongest in countries where economic conditions were not good and personal security was low. These results strongly suggest that the meaning produced by religion is most important for people who daily confront the most unsettling aspects of existence – suffering, poverty, and death.
How should we interpret these findings? Is religion, as Marx said, a drug for the oppressed masses, helping the victims of social injustice to cope with their lousy situations? Such a simple take seems unlikely – particularly since both the wealthy and the poor in insecure nations tend to be religious. Diener, Tay, and Myers also dismiss the suggestion that religiousness keeps people focused on another world, preventing them from paying enough attention to material concerns to develop a strong economy. Rather, it seems that economic security seems to directly assuage the existential dilemmas that religion often helps to relieve.
Some people may take these results to mean that religion is a symptom of social inequity, and that the best solution is to build up economic security everywhere in the world. But if religion helps give order, meaning, and purpose to people’s lives – even in rich societies – perhaps there’s still value to be had in it. After all, even citizens of wealthy countries will eventually get sick, grow old, and die. Religion, in other words, is partly a tool that helps people deal with the dark and unsettling side of life. Wealthy societies may provide a larger buffer against that darkness than others, but at some point or another we will still all be faced with something that makes us wonder, “Why is this happening? Where can I find meaning in this?” And those who have a religion to turn to may be the best equipped to answer these questions.