Why Does Religion Seem To Make People Happier?

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Abstract

With the modern world becoming increasingly more secular and less religious, a dive into the bold claim that “Religious people are much happier and have more ‘life satisfaction’ than others”, merits being adequately addressed, seriously studied and further discussed. The Daily Mail, a worldwide online news media powerhouse, published an article that was based on scientific and psychological studies which stated that religious people were virtually twice as happy as were their secular, non-religious counterparts. As secularism has been gaining traction in recent years, studies have been conducted in the U.S. and globally, and the correlation has strongly shown that religious people live fuller, happier and more satisfying lives than those who identify as non-religious. In a study conducted by the Austin Institute for The Study of Family & Culture, they found this strong correlation within a pool of over 15,000 Americans. We will explore this correlation that “religious people are the happiest” a bit further, strive to strengthen or weaken the argument for causation, seek other alternatives and explain whether the happiness is derived from religion, itself, or if that happiness is derived from the social platform and network that is naturally created due to religious affiliation. (keywords: religion, happiness, secular, atheist, beliefs, god, Social, psychology)

Is Religion Really Our Source for Real Happiness?

Is religion really our most viable source for real happiness? According to some recent studies, the correlation between happiness and religion seems to suggest that the answer is “yes”. Happiness is certainly subjective. After all, it is a feeling, an emotion, something that can’t seem to be adequately explained half of the time. So, the argument that it can’t absolutely be measured, will be an on-going one. For the aspects of “happiness” that we feel we can measure, studies in the U.S. and globally have shown that religious people are happier than secular people, that their lives are fuller, that their lives have more purpose and that they are seemingly more optimistic. With that strong correlation, one would ask if it possess enough backing to assume causation. Does Life + Religion = Ultimate Happiness? First, we need to figure out what the key elements are about religion that makes one happy. In the study previously mentioned it states, “Of the more than 15,000 sampled, 45 percent of those who attend a religious service on a weekly basis described themselves as ‘very happy,’ while only 28 percent of those who said they ‘never’ attend said the same”. It went on to say that “Religious people are much happier and have more ‘life satisfaction’ than others”. Notice the study suggests that “religious people” in general are happier than non-religious people. It doesn’t suggest that Christians are happier than Muslims or that Catholics are happier than Hindus. It suggests that the members of all those religions, plus all the other identified religions in the world are happier than non-religious people. This implies that the basic tenants, consistent organizational activities and social constructs of religion are what make people happier, and not the unique theologies found within a particular brand of belief. With that being said and to be clear, beliefs within a specific religious context do make its adherents happy, fill them with purpose, meaning and hope – it’s just that that happiness experienced due to belief does not imply greater happiness in comparison to other religions. We will expound on the topic of “beliefs” here, shortly.

Do Not Underestimate the Power of Social Connection and Acceptance

In my research it has been identified that social acceptance and continuous involvement within a social construct is a powerful component of positive mental health, personal self-worth and overall happiness. According to the study previously mentioned, “people who attend religious services on a weekly basis are nearly twice as likely to describe themselves as “very happy” (45%) than people who never attend (28%). Conversely, those who never worship are twice as likely to say they are “very unhappy” (4%) as those who attend services weekly (2%). Service attendance has the highest correlation to increased happiness. The study showed that higher levels of church attendance “predict higher life satisfaction,” even after accounting for how important religious faith is in people’s lives”.

Tribalism, from an evolutionary standpoint, helps to strengthen this correlation. As a species, we have not been able to survive without each other. Even in our modern circumstances, we humans seem to need each other — not exactly need each other on a day to day basis for physical survival — but we still need human interaction, acceptance and social support for our mental and emotional well-being. Certain research has shown that “social support wards off the effects of stress on depression, anxiety and other health problems”.

From another study, “One of the most plausible theories as to why religion and happiness are connected has to do with the social support that religious communities can provide. Such a network of friends and fellow congregants, sharing common purposes and motivations, is a key way in which happiness is associated with being religious…this offers tentative evidence that actual integration into a religious support network through attendance at religious services may in part be responsible for the increased happiness observed among religious people”

Overall, social acceptance, inclusion of minorities, and strong social support all play a huge role in the mental health and happiness of the individual. For example, according to one study, “The associations of religiosity were mediated by social support, feeling respected, and purpose or meaning in life”. Minorities in any sort of context are usually less happy than their majority counterparts. According to an “extensive survey of 1,280 people ages 13-24 by The Associated Press and MTV, 72 percent of whites say they are happy with life in general, compared with 51 percent of Hispanics and 56 percent of blacks.” There is a glaringly huge gap between the self-reported happiness white people experience in comparison to the levels of happiness that hispanic and black people reported experiencing. Other studies strongly suggest that heterosexuals suffer less depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and rejection over homosexuals. In one study of LGBT people, psychologist Vickie M. Mays, PhD, “explored whether ongoing discrimination fuels anxiety, depression and other stress-related mental health problems among LGB people. The authors found strong evidence of a relationship between the two.” Even on a smaller social scale, many studies strongly suggest that two people going through life together are better off and create a happier environment than one person experiencing life on their own. According to a researcher from The National Bureau of Economic Research, “There’s a lot of stress going on in middle age…having someone to talk that out with and having someone to support you in those difficult times can help explain why it’s a bit harder for people without a partner.”

Religions, naturally, make up the biggest social organizations and support groups in the world. These organizations become natural environments in which people of like-minds and beliefs can regularly and frequently socialize, emotionally, mentally-and even monetarily-support one another, discover common themes of internal purpose and external drive, etc.

Social majorities in any context are statistically happier than their minority counterparts for a myriad of reasons. The tribal sense of “strength in numbers” is a very real and relevant phenomenon. Whereas racial minorities might feel discriminated against by white people in the majority, or LGBT people feeling socially rejected by heterosexuals in the majority, or even singles feelings ‘singled-out” by their married peers; secularists and other non-religious people can and do feel the same sorts of discrimination, rejection and feelings of solidarity when in the face of religious majorities.

The Crux of “Superior Religious Happiness”?

Beliefs are the main focal point for participants in every religion. Beliefs are what set the various religions, and sub-sects of religion, apart from each other. Theological doctrines, rituals, and practices all play a huge role in the level of unity and “oneness” a congregant feels with and towards his or her fellow congregants. Though the various religious dogmas leave their members feeling unique and special, these differing ideologies do not exhibit any measurable superiority to euphoric divine bliss or any special claim to any untapped happiness over another.

Even though science has become increasingly more capable of furthering its research efforts in the study of explaining and understanding religious phenomenon and the explanations behind supernatural events/feelings, it is not something that will be thoroughly discussed in this paper. With that being said, I do find it important to highlight a couple causes that many religious people believe effect their unique happiness — that they feel only come from divine observance, practice or intervention.

As psychologist, Nigel Barber, stated in one of his publications, “I argued that the basic function of religion is coping with anxiety. More specifically, it helps people to deal with the stress of uncertainty. If this is true then, religion has a primary soothing function rather like the security blanket from which a small child derives comfort. We now have good scientific evidence that religious rituals and prayer work in just this way. Each produces a slowing of heart rate and other signs of physiological calming. This implies that the psychological effects of religious rituals are analogous to those of anti-anxiety drugs like tranquillizers or alcohol”. To further help explain certain the higher happiness levels experienced by religious participants, I refer you to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine, “Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music”.

Despite trying to scientifically explain away some of the unique happiness that only religious people seem to experience (or lay claim to as a religious feeling), there is a single, important aspect of believing in a religion’s ideology. The “hope” or “faith” they have in an afterlife. Not only does this single aspect of faith (a, virtually, universal belief among all religions) give a person added purpose and meaning for this life, it gives them the peace of mind and the mental coping mechanisms which allow them to more effectively deal with tragedies such as death. What a powerful thing to make sense of the death of a loved one–to believe you will see them again. Who doesn’t want to have the belief that when they die, they will live again in some, literal, “out of this world paradise”? Or, to reiterate the more poignant example, who doesn’t want to believe they will be reunited with their loved ones someday? What a powerful coping mechanism — this aspect of religion is. This simple, yet powerful belief—which is a common theological principle found in all religions— may be the crux and ultimate key as to why the powerful correlation between “religious people and happiness” exist.

But Wait…Let’s Explore the, “Secularists Are Happier Than Religionists” Paradox

In secular societies, which in many cases are wealthier and have more social supports, religious and nonreligious people experience higher wellbeing and positive feelings. Religious people in secular countries report more negative feelings than the nonreligious do, however.

This paradox deserves a lengthy discussion. For our purposes in this paper, I’ll leave you with certain statistics that seem to destroy the idea that “religious people are happier than secular people”. According to the most recent World-wide Gallup Polls; the top 10 “Happiest Countries in the World” also happen to be among the top 25 “Most Atheist Countries in the World”.

Reasons such as, thriving economies, personal opportunity, quasi-socialism, higher-education, personal wealth and growing social support among secularists were –just to name a few– the main ingredients of the recipe for a “happier, healthier, secular people”. Just food for thought.

If I may add my own personal, secular philosophy into the mix:

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

-Christopher Hitchens-

As an agnostic, I’m not sure what happens when I die. I know for a fact I’ll die, and as far as I know, that’s it. Of course, I hope for something else, something that keeps me alive and relevant after this life. Doesn’t seem probable to me, but a boy can dream, right? 😉

At the same time, I’ve found beauty in living and being in the very real and certain, NOW. Knowing there is an end makes now much more beautiful and worth while. You can’t take life for granted if you feel it has an expiration date. On the other end of the spectrum, you can take life for granted and forget to savor it if you believe it will last forever.

How enjoyable is a piece of steak if you can’t stop eating it? Not very. But how enjoyable is that piece of steak if you know it will soon be gone? I’m sure you’d savor every single bite.

So, though there is a certain sadness of not being sure if I continue on after this life, there is also a certain beauty. A renewed life-breath being given; ensuring I savor each bite (day).

Conclusion

At last, and despite the correlations these various studies and surveys suggest, one thing is clear; independent, religious ideologies and unique beliefs are not the cause of the superior happiness experienced by actively religious people. This diverse number of religions may argue amongst themselves as to whose various theologies promote “ultimate happiness” or “true joy”, but from a scientific-psychological worldview, an actual solid factor of this happiness is merely the evolutionary components of their inherently-tribal, social constructs that keep them mentally healthy, hopeful and happy. In addition, and as pointed out previously, the crux and most convincing factor of a religious person’s, seemingly elevated happiness, is the supernatural, theologically-unifying and untestable belief in an afterlife. Even then, one could argue that the anxiety and depression caused by the lack of feeling “worthy” of going to that “afterlife”, makes one feel less happy and unsatisfied. Finally, one could also argue that religious people think they are happier or feel obligated to say they are happier than they really are. For example; members of cults seem to think they are the happiest they’ve ever been. Studies and observable history show the opposite to be true. Another example stems from the idea that some religions teach that everything someone is and has is because of a god’s love — and to show a lack of gratitude for merely existing is sinful.

For me, though it is tempting to throw my uncertainties and fears into the black unknown, it is a healthier notion to adopt the late, Carl Sagan’s sentiments, “Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

If there is one thing we can learn from religion and adopt into our ever-growing secular world, is the principle of unity. It is the idea of social unification, acceptance and support.

References

Cochran, Susan PhD, an epidemiologist in the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health: November American Psychologist (Vol. 56, No. 11)

Cohen, S. (2004). Social relationships and health. American Psychologist, 674-84

Diener, Ed,Tay, Louis,Myers, David G.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101(6), Dec 2011, 1278-1290

“The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out?”

Ferguson, Michael A. et al, “Reward, salience, and attentional networks are activated by religious experience in devout Mormons”, Social Neuroscience (2016) University of Utah

Gallup World Poll 2014-2016: “Happiest Countries in the World”

The National Bureau of Economic Research in Canada: “Married Couples and Economics” study 2011

Article of Interest (Research Paper Topic Article): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2886974/Study-Religious-people-happier-life-satisfaction-others.html

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