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Are religious people happier than atheists?

Not necessarily, according to a new study.

REUTERS/Nir Elias

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.”

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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.”

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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.