Religion has a profound effect on happiness. Multiple studies have shown that religious believers are generally happier people, an effect that is more pronounced in poorer countries. The reasons are: 1. the hierarchical structure of the church; 2. the belief in divine justice and an ordered moral universe; 3. help and companionship available within the community of believers; and 4. the unique hierarchy of merit within church congregations.
This is part of a series of posts on happiness. Find the whole series here.
The importance of religions on Earth
Does God make people happy? Are religious people more satisfied with their lives than those who don’t believe in God? And are religious countries happier than more secular ones?
Out of 7 people on Earth today, 6 belong to some kind of religious community. Earth’s population currently is about 7 billion, of which (according to Wikipedia) 2.2 billion are Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, 400 million Chinese traditional religion adherents, 375 million Buddhists, and another 500 million are distributed among various smaller religions. This leaves only about 1 billion people who don’t believe in some kind of God. So when we talk about happiness, we cannot ignore religion, since it is an important part of the lives of the majority of humans on Earth.
Out of 7 people on Earth today, 6 belong to some kind of religious community.
For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter what religion we are talking about. The effects of religion on happiness are clear enough and similar for most world religions. For examples, I will use Christianity, since this is the religion the readers of this page will probably be most familiar with; but similar principles apply to other religions.
Differences between religious and secular attitudes
But what distinguishes a religious life from a secular one in practice? How is the life and the world-view of a practising Christian different from that of a non-believer? A few obvious points come to mind:
Believers are expected to follow God’s commands.
After death, ‘good’ believers will enjoy a desirable afterlife, while ‘bad’ people (or unbelievers) will be punished.
Believers attend church on Sundays.
The Bible provides a basic framework of morality (Ten Commandments, Sermon of the Mount).
One important part of this framework, particularly for Christians, is to love one’s enemies, and to be nice and helpful to everyone, especially those who need help.
Although we use examples from Christian practices, it is important to see that these points can be made in similar ways about other religions.
Most religions provide ethical frameworks that command or discourage particular behaviours (points 1 and 4 above).
Most religions include belief in an afterlife that, in some form, will reward ‘good’ and punish ‘bad’ behaviour (2).
All religions provide some kind of visible ritual, be it daily prayers, visiting temples, attending rites for the dead, observing religious holidays, or going regularly to church (3).
And most religions prescribe a benevolent attitude (5) towards others (at least those of the same community): in Islam, for example, charity (zakat) is a central ‘pillar’ of the faith, and charity is not only recommended but required of every Muslim who is able to afford it. Giving and sharing are also central to Buddhism, which encourages “accomplishment in generosity”.
Christian sources as examples of happiness practices
Let’s look at a few classic sources for more advice on how to behave well as a Christian.
In the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5), Jesus says:
(6) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek [those showing humility, the gentle people], for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy…”
The Regula Benedicti, the Rule of Benedict (~500 AD) has been one of the most influential rules that are followed by monks in Christian monasteries. Even monasteries that don’t follow it, usually follow other rules that are similar in spirit:
(7) “The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. (…) As soon as anything has been ordered by the Superior, receive it as a divine command and cannot suffer any delay in executing it. Such as these, therefore, immediately leaving their own affairs and forsaking their own will, dropping the work they were engaged on and leaving it unfinished, with the ready step of obedience follow up with their deeds the voice of him who commands.”
Notice that monks are supposed to not hesitate even a moment in following a superior’s command. If they are engaged in their own business, they are supposed to drop it immediately and ‘leave it unfinished,’ rather than trying to complete it at the risk of being late to do what was asked of them. Also, this abandoning of one’s own projects and interests should cause no dissatisfaction to the monk at all:
(8) “But this very obedience will be acceptable to God and pleasing to all only if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling, or objection. … For if the disciple obeys with an ill will and murmurs, not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart, then even though he fulfil the command yet his work will not be acceptable to God, who sees that his heart is murmuring.”
The Rule of St Benedict is a timeless manual of humility, obedience and Christian monastic life.
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How does religion affect happiness?
Let’s think for a moment how these different behaviours and attitudes might affect an individual’s happiness.
First, being expected to follow God’s or the abbot’s commands without questioning them clearly removes a central source of anxiety from everyday life. If I am personally responsible for my decisions, then I will be constantly afraid to act in a wrong way: either in a way that will cause harm to others, for which they will hold me responsible, or even harm to my own interests. This puts a heavy weight on every decision, and particularly on those decisions that are not covered by social custom. For example, I don’t need to agonise about whether to greet my neighbour on the street, because this is covered by a social custom. But I do need to make up my own decision about whether to separate from my partner, whether to have an abortion, or how to respond to an injustice done to me at work. Do I fight back, do I accept the injustice, do I defend myself, do I try to find a way to pay it back?
Is abortion morally right? We look at the main arguments for and against abortion.
Such questions can cause a lot of unhappiness, and religions clearly help in these situations by providing extended guidelines: you should not leave your wife (because you promised to God not to do so), you should not have an abortion, you should practice forgiveness in the office, remembering the Sermon of the Mount (6). Problem solved. And if you feel like grumbling about the advice, consider Benedict’s words.
Second, the expectation of justice after death makes it easier to accept a (temporary) injustice, particularly if one believes that the state after death is going to last forever. Compared to forever, every possible duration of injustice in this life is indeed very short.
The importance of religious rituals for happiness
But it is not only these background beliefs that affect a believer’s happiness. Everyday rituals are also important. For instance, going to church:
Provides a constant reminder that one is part of a community of people who share the same basic beliefs about life. This provides emotional support, and helps fight feelings of loneliness.
After a while, one gets to know the other people in church, since it’s generally a limited group of people who will always (or often) attend services at the same time. So one develops new acquaintances and friendships in that circle of church-goers.
Particularly in countries with less material wealth, a circle of acquaintances that spans occupations and social status groups (like a church congregation) can be a valuable resource for all kinds of favours, access to information, and access to material goods. If you want to trade goods with someone, your church congregation provides an environment with a wide variety of people that you already know superficially. If you need to borrow a hammer, or even a car, where are your chances better than in a church community, where everybody shares the same ideals of truthfulness and ethical behaviour, and where people are more likely to trust each other? In the informal chats before and after the service, church-goers get to know each other better, and they exchange information that can be vital: about new job openings, for example, or rare goods that are available at some particular place, or many kinds of other opportunities.
Finally, the church defines its own hierarchy of merit that is different from the hierarchy in the outside world. In a capitalist society, personal worth is measured in money: financial success, a well-paid job, a big house, access to expensive goods. Many people, naturally, fail to achieve these goals. For them, it is important that there is an alternative system of judgement (within the church), which is completely separated from that of conventional society. In church, other things count: piety, knowledge of the scripture and rituals, a good voice for singing, a deep understanding of religious dogma, and so on. Often, people who outside would be considered unsuccessful (old, unemployed, poor, uneducated people) can have a very successful ‘career’ inside a church congregation, and can get a lot of recognition and status inside that community. In this sense, the church provides opportunities for a ‘second life,’ a second chance at a career that is based on entirely different abilities and strengths than the outside, secular career of a person.
The instruction given in Benedict’s Monastic Rule has further interesting effects: it essentially asks one to practice ignoring one’s own pursuits and desires, to practice to give them up at a moment’s notice, and to put oneself completely under the command of another person. If practised consistently, this probably will lead to the monk developing a greater inner distance from his own desires, a kind of separation of the acting person and the desiring person, such that the acting person is less influenced by his or her desires, and more ready to give them up. (Remember that the giving-up of one’s own interests and pursuits has to be total and voluntary, done happily and without any trace of grumbling. This means that it needs to be entirely internalised; the disposition to be always ready to drop one’s own pursuits needs to become a part of one’s character, rather than a mere action one performs.)
The expectation of justice after death makes it easier to accept a (temporary) injustice, particularly if one believes that the state after death is going to last forever.
Other spiritual traditions
Many spiritual paths emphasise that dissociating oneself from one’s own desires contributes to (or even is a necessary condition for) happiness:
Buddhists, for example, learn to get rid of ‘attachments’ to worldly things, which includes desires directed at obtaining material things, but also the desire for success, self-validation, and so on.
The Stoics (who are the subject of other posts on this site), ask one to give up wanting things over which one has no control. Desires should therefore be controlled by the rational mind, and not (as is usually the case) the other way round.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), famous British philosopher, makes a similar point in his book “The Conquest of Happiness”: That one of the conditions for happiness in life is to let go of self-directed, egoistical pursuits, and to focus on external things that are not related to one’s own self; for example, to be interested in science, or music, or some other pursuit of that kind.
Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness is an eye-opening treatise on happiness, as seen from the perspective of a famous philosopher of the mid-20th century.
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Evidence from research: Are religious people happier?
From what we saw above, we would expect religious people to be significantly more happy than non-religious people. We would also expect the poor and socially unsuccessful to profit more from religion than the wealthy and socially well-off people. And this is indeed the case.
In countries with a per-capita yearly income of USD 2000 or less, 92% consider religion an important part of their daily lives. In countries with a per-capita yearly income of USD 25,000 or more, only 44% see religion as important in daily life (Crabtree & Pelham 2009).
In countries with low average incomes, religious people feel more enjoyment in daily life (65%) than non-religious people (55%). Conversely, they feel less worry (29% vs. 36%), sadness, depression, and anger.
66% of religious people in these countries say that they ‘would like more days like yesterday,’ while this is true of only 53% of non-religious people. They also feel more respected (77% vs. 69%), smile and laugh more (65% vs. 56%).
Religious communities have dramatically lower suicide rates (often 1/4 that of non-religious people; Myers 2013), and people who regularly go to church smoke less (smoking rate goes down from 50% to 10%), and are arrested less (from 20% down to 5%). Highly religious people also donate significantly more (about 1/3 more) to charity than non-religious people (Myers 2013).
There are many more studies like these, and they all confirm that being religious and observing one’s religion increases well-being in many different ways.
Religious communities have dramatically lower suicide rates and people who regularly go to church smoke less and are arrested less.
The religious engagement paradox
But there’s a catch.
The positive effects of religion are apparent mostly on an individual level:
In a given country, religious people live longer (over 7 years difference between heavy church-goers and unbelievers!), are happier, separate less from their partners, and smoke less.
But if we instead look at whole countries, the picture is different. Highly religious countries are places where people die sooner, smoke more, and commit more crimes (Myers 2012).
A superficial look at various countries confirms that. Surely, Denmark (a highly secular place) is a better, more tolerant place to live than Syria or Iran. Texas (18% unaffiliated with religion) has more smokers and more crime (2012: 3770 crimes per 100,000 people) than New York (27% unaffiliated, 2012: 2329 crimes per 100,000 people) (Syracuse.com, PewForum.org).
It is unclear exactly why this is the case. Many different explanations seem possible.
On the one hand, personal religiosity, if not forced by the state, is a voluntary disposition that is based on deep, personal beliefs, and these beliefs shape one’s everyday outlook on life (as we saw above).
On the other hand, state religiosity is prescribed, and thus need not be based on equally deep beliefs. The ‘believers’ therefore are not likely to be ‘true believers’ of the same type as those who embrace their belief voluntarily, or even against the prevailing indifference of their environment. Where belief is enforced by the state, it can easily become hypocrisy: pretend-belief, rather than the genuine thing.
Also, some religious beliefs make it less likely that individuals will attain higher education:
And higher education, in turn, opens up ways for individuals to pursue happiness (for example, by getting better jobs).
Also, some regions on Earth with high percentages of religious people happen to be places that are disadvantaged, poor, or caught up in wars and civil wars, while the regions with a high degree of material prosperity tend to be the more secular places. One might speculate as to the reasons for this, but it may also be that it is the result of particular historical developments, and that it has nothing to do with an intrinsic connection between religiosity and poverty, lack of education, and violence.
All in all, religious people are happier than non-believers, but only if the belief is genuine and practised in an environment which is free and (largely) secular.