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Are religious people happier than atheists?


During the past 30 years or so, a slew of studies have suggested that religious people tend to be happier and healthier, on average, than those who describe themselves as non-religious.

In fact, some research has found that people who regularly attend religious services can expect to live an average of seven years longer than their peers who never step inside a church, synagogue or mosque.

For years these kinds of studies have been construed as bad news for the 15 percent of Americans who cite “none” as their religious affiliation. But, as Sandra Upson points out in an article this month in Scientific American Mind, non-religious individuals and atheists (for they are not necessarily the same) needn’t worry.

New research has found “that the positive effects of religion depend enormously on where you live,” writes Upson. “Religious people may be happier than their godless counterparts, but only if the society they belong to values religion highly, which not all societies do.”

In other words, the “happiness premium” that previous research has found among religious people stems not from those individuals’ religious beliefs, but from the social support they receive from being part of a community of like-minded people.

Writes Upson:

[S]upport for the conjecture that religiosity gains its power by being culturally valued came earlier this year from psychologist Jochen E. Gebauer of Humboldt University in Berlin and his colleagues. They mined a data set consisting of almost 190,000 records of individuals from 11 European countries who had set up profiles on an online dating site. These people had all rated how important religion was to them and how well a variety of positive adjectives — such as calm, healthy and resilient — described them. The researchers combined their answers into a single term, “psychological adjustment.”

The researchers found that the link between high religiosity and psychological adjustment was stronger in more religious countries and disappeared almost entirely in countries that did not tend to value religiosity. As the authors put it, “religiosity, albeit a potent force, confers benefits by riding on cultural values.”

Economics plays a role

Interestingly, another large international study found that the happiness premium from religion seems to occur mostly where life is more of an economic struggle. “If the living is easy,” writes Upson, “both nonreligious and religious people have similar, relatively high subjective well-being. This effect held true for all religions represented in the [survey’s] sample — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.”

Indeed, Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands are among the happiest countries in the world — yet they are also among the least religious.

That international study found the same effect to be true in the United States. “In the states where religion was very important, people were much more likely to be living in difficult circumstances,” explains Upson. “They also had lower subjective well-being than people living in less religious parts of the country. Did religion make them happier, as previous studies had shown? Absolutely, according to the data — but they still were worse off than the contented residents of more affluent states, where religion mattered less.”

Benefit comes from community

Scientists are now discovering that non-religious communities of like-minded people can offer individuals the same kind of happiness-inducing social support as religious communities.

“Belief in God or gods is not a prerequisite for a pleasurable existence, although it can make life easier,” she concludes. “Socializing with like-minded people on a regular basis, and living and working in a supportive community, can offer many of the same benefits.”

Or, as one researcher told Upson: “Religion can certainly help people to be happier, but other things can help you do the same thing. A peaceful, cooperative society, even in the absence of religion, seems to have the same effect.”

You can read Upson’s article on the Scientific American Mind website. It’s also in the May/June print issue of the magazine.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/13/2012 - 11:30 am.

    Somebody define “Happy”…whose happy barometer to use?

    Picture two priests bending over a coffin. Inside reclines a yellow round icon – no body, no hands; just round ball – with a smiling face. The priest in ceremonious syncopation leave the dead one a blessing…”Have A Happy Day.”

    Religion at times, creates an aura of happiness within a structural confine like a church or a synagogue or mosque…but what happens to that happiness syndrome when the structural supports are gone?

    Happiness or performance ritualized into soft thoughts rounded by conformity…who knows where ‘happy’ begins or ends?

    Is happiness too simple a word to define the state of being and what it implies?

    Emotions in all their diverse applications can produce something that satisfies temporarily…or deep within the human psyche is something else that speaks to us that creates numerous emotional and intellectual reactions and we feel a certain sense of satisfaction in the knowing; happiness whatever?

    Two mallards were resting in our garden this morning; shelter from the cold lake winds I suppose. Happy ducks? I don’t know but I can assume so…made me happy; the unexpected pleasure out my library windows…

    Enough already — happiness is fleeting more than a stationary state of mind that cannot be realistically analysed in one study…even two?

    Rue the day or seize it…back to work…have a good one.

  2. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 04/13/2012 - 11:30 am.

    ignorance is often bliss

    “All that is necessary, as it seems to me, to convince any reasonable person that the Bible is simply and purely of human invention – of barbarian invention – is to read it. Read it as you would any other book; think of it as you would of any other; get the bandage of reverence from your eyes; drive from your heart the phantom of fear; push from the throne of your brain the coiled form of superstition – then read the Holy Bible, and you will be amazed that you ever, for one moment, supposed a being of infinite wisdom, goodness and purity, to be the author of such ignorance and of such atrocity.” Robert Green Ingersoll

    • Submitted by Herbert Davis on 04/16/2012 - 03:30 am.

      “reasonable” is the key

      Once people cross the point or remain on the primitive side of the point, there is a drastic difference in interpretation.
      Primitive mankind saw the flat earth and the recovery of the sick as miraculous, because they were unable to grasp the scientific reality (reasonableness). If you are willing to accept things without “scientific proof”,hence “unreasonable”, you can believe anything; it’s a matter of faith!

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/13/2012 - 11:58 am.

    Here in the US

    Where religion represents a smorgasbord of possibilities, I suspect most people choose their religions based on their own personality attributes (especially their personality deficits and dysfunctions).

    Naturally disgruntled people tend to find expressions of faith which provide for them reasons for their disgruntlement and thereby, reinforce their current state rather than leading and guiding them toward better psychological and spiritual balance.

    Naturally happily oblivious people tend to seek the same with the same results.

    Sadly, in the most rigid expressions of religion (conservative and liberal, both), the particular set of personality deficits and dysfunctions exhibited by the historical and current leaders of those religious groups and institutions tend to be regarded as normal and desirable,…

    and youngsters tend to be forced into the mold provided by those examples, thereby creating more people with the same lack of psychological health.

    More flexible faith expressions tend not to lock the youngsters being raised among them into such molds and are, thereby, able to assist each youngster to make the most of the person God designed them to be.

    Therefore, the more rigid expressions of faith tend not to point their adherents beyond themselves and their institutions, institutional ideals, historical texts and dogma toward the God they claim to be the inspiration for those things,…

    but rather, seek only to lock their followers into fealty to those very human institutions and leaders, thereby substituting themselves and their leaders for the God they claim to worship.

    I can’t help but wonder if God doesn’t have an easier time bringing into society the things God desires by gently inspiring them in people who regard themselves as LESS religious or not religious at all and who, therefore, remain largely unaware of the source of their inspirations.

    I fear that, when God seeks to inspire the members of our most self-righteously religious organizations (whether liberal or conservative) to move beyond the dictates and dogmas of their churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., toward greater faithfulness than the people who surround them in those places,…

    God meets massive resistance, since those people will generally resist and reject the changes God is constantly seeking to bring into the world through those whose emotional balance and spiritual health make it possible for them to notice and respond to the inklings God nudges into their hearts, their minds, their imaginations, and their intuitions (whether they recognize their source or not).

    It would be fascinating do discover which of our religious expressions and which local congregations are most successful at bringing their members to greater emotional/spiritual/psychological health (which in my estimation, are absolutely linked in that way),…

    and are best at going beyond that to encourage and assist their members in most easily bringing into human society the things that God is inspiring in them and that God believes to be needed at any particular moment in time.

    Or perhaps that’s only something that can be discovered in the life beyond this life.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/13/2012 - 12:00 pm.

    Tail wagging…happiness?

    Addendum to Happy Ducks story: Neighbor dog just passed by. Smelled delicious essence of wild duck.

    Ducks flew away…unhappy?

    Happy dog now; tail wagging. No duck, but tail still wagging…happiness?

    Haven’t figured out if either Ducks or Dog were religious or atheists.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/13/2012 - 12:28 pm.

    Doesn’t this then also explain

    why self-selected segregation is the natural state of the human condition and forced integration is counterproductive?

    Segregating like-minded people is not only the natural state of affairs but integrating populations, say in an eduction setting, who differ only by race or skin color is a discredited philosophy and plays no role in the happiness and subsequent success of the individuals.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/13/2012 - 04:05 pm.

      The need to segregate

      A group or individual’s need to segregate is directly related to the ability of that group or individual to think rationally. As a group of like-minded individuals grows more homogenous, regardless of the initial state of mind, the more rigid, fearful, and irrational they become. Coddling segregation is merely the nurturing of fear and irrationality. Yoda provides a particularly insightful view into the role of irrational fear.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/15/2012 - 10:10 am.

        Total nonsense

        “As a group of like-minded individuals grows more homogenous, regardless of the initial state of mind, the more rigid, fearful, and irrational they become.”

        So the Augustinians, Benedictines, Carmelites, Christian Brothers, Sisters of Charity, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Paulists, Salesians, et al are communities of fearfull and irrational people?

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/13/2012 - 01:18 pm.

    A Society of Psychologically/Emotionally/Spitrtually Healthy

    Individuals would not feel the need to “self segregate.” That some of us can only bear to spend time with those who will never question our assumptions (or delusions) is testimony to our lack of health.

    The NEED to segregate ourselves and, thereby, be sure we are never exposed to those whose backgrounds, ideas, and life circumstances are different from our own is a sign of dysfunction, weakness, and insecurity, NOT a sign of health and strength.

  7. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 04/13/2012 - 05:47 pm.

    The numbers seem to point to something else

    It seems that you could draw the assumption from the statistics that the thing that makes non-religious people the most unhappy is being surrounded by religious people.

    Also thank you Grace McGarvie for putting up the Robert Ingersoll quote. One of the greatest speakers, and fighters of injustice in the 1800’s who has been completely left out of our history.

  8. Submitted by Lora Jones on 04/13/2012 - 06:21 pm.

    Having had family reunions in Mississippi all my life

    there is no doubt in my mind that being “religious” in Mississippi is a prerequisite for happiness. It’s pretty much the only game in town. Being pack animals, we humans generally don’t do well when we’re divorced from the community/society that surrounds us — and if the Church is the only community available, well the Church it’s going to be. When you add in the poverty that comes from right-to-work-for-less wages and entrenched tax-free elite, and the abysmal education and “social” services that keep the poor poor and the rich free — hell, I’d probably have gotten religion, too. Or killed myself.

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