Does religion make you happy?

I recently read Arthur Brooks’ new book, Gross National Happiness. It’s a liberal-conservative version of Richard Layard’s social democratic Happiness: Lessons from a New Science a few years back. Two economists reading the happiness literature and finding it (mostly) supports what they already thought about the world.

One of Brooks’ arguments is that religion is good for happiness (he calls this chapter ‘Happiness is a gift from above’). Certainly the reported statistics are striking, with 43% of those who attend church regularly describing themselves as ‘very happy’, compared to 23% of those who attend church never or rarely.

I had a look at a similar question in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005, and there is a smaller but still large gap between the proportion of people who go to church one a week or more who are ‘very happy’ (defined as 9-10 on a 0 to 10 happiness scale) and those who never go, 33% to 23%.

Will Wilkinson is, however, critical
of Brooks’ attempts to generalise this beyond the US experience. He points out that very secular European countries have very high happiness scores, and unlike the US they have been getting happier as they secularised.

Though the US is unusual for a modern Western country in the significance religion still has, Brooks offers some plausible theories as to why religious people may be happier (these are spread through the book, not just in the religion chapter). These are:

* going to church (or wherever people go to pray) provides social opportunities and membership of a group, both of which are known to promote happiness
* giving is correlated with happiness, and religious people give more
* religion provides meaning and purpose
* belief in an after-life gives hope and reduces fear of death

He also reports a survey finding that people whose God was ‘loving and uncontrolling’ were happier than those who saw their God as ‘unloving and more controlling’. From talking to religious friends, I’m pretty sure that the faith experience, at least of a loving God, is a major positive along with the sociological benefits associated with religious faith.

There are secular equivalents or near-equivalents of most of the mechanisms that Brooks suggests contribute to religious people being on average happier than those who never go to church. Religious metaphors are overworked when talking about politics (‘Green religion’, ‘market fundamentalism’ etc) but it is true that people can be devoted to political as well as religious ideas, and that this gives them a powerful sense of meaning in life and connection to something larger than themselves. And there are plenty of other ways of getting social connection and giving things away. But religion provides a convenient package for all of them.

The difficulty for unhappy atheists is that they can’t just decide to become religious the way they might decide to get out more or join a volunteer group. So that religious people tend to be happier is not very useful information for those who do not believe and want to improve their well-being. But it is perhaps reason not to be an ideological atheist.

18 thoughts on “Does religion make you happy?

  1. Perhaps too it’s just that churches attract happy (ie smug and complacent) people -that is, the causality runs the other way.

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  2. Brooks does have a passage suggesting that religious belief has a genetic component, as does happiness, implying without arguing in any detail that there might be a connection between the two. But I see little reason to believe that either happy or religious people are ‘smug’ or ‘complacent’.

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  3. He points out that very secular European countries have very high happiness scores, and unlike the US they have been getting happier as they secularised.

    There is a distinction to be made (Wilkinson mentions this) between the correlation between net happiness & net secularity, and the correlation between happiness and religiosity at the individual level. Wilkinson seems to say both are positive relationships.

    What (if any) policy implication(s) do you think this has?

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  4. It seems like a nice multi-level modeling problem. Religious people may be more happy within countries, but countries may not neccesarily differ.

    I agree with DD on the causality issue — although it may simply be related to number of social contacts people have — if you go to church/volunteer group etc. commonly, then it seems more than likely that you are going to end up knowing lots of people socially (at least compared to people that don’t).

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  5. Leon – Like most happiness findings, I think this has few if any policy implications for a liberal democracy. Leave people alone to practice their religion, which is pretty much what we do now.

    It undermines the argument that religion is harmful and should be attacked (perhaps via funding for private schools), but that is not a policy change likely to happen anytime soon.

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  6. Andrew, I’m at a loss trying to work out *what* might happen anytime soon. This government seems to have about a dozen ‘third rails’ that it will not touch. Limited tax reform seems to be the only one, but could you really see this government overhauling the FTB system?

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  7. From the classical liberal point of view happiness research has next to zero implications for policy because politics is not about making people happy, it is about maintaining an institutional framework where people have a chance of being happy, also free and prosperous, unlike the regimes where coercive utopians pursue divisive and counter-productive policies.

    Still, happiness research can be pursued as a very interesting project in social psychology.

    There are also policy implications in the failure of coercive utopian schemes to actuallly make people happy when they are put in place. See the outcome of policy for the Aborigines post-Whitlam, and affirmative action worldwide.

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  8. “It undermines the argument that religion is harmful and should be attacked …”

    How so? Religion should be attacked because it:
    a) causes unhappiness amongst those of different beliefs
    b) leads to public policy prescriptions that lead to unhappiness
    c) and prevents humans creating more accurate mental models of the world.

    On (c), better to be Socrates discontented than a pig happy. Self-delusion is pleasant, but it is still delusion.

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  9. DD – I think we can dismiss (a) entirely, since the same argument could be used against any belief or practice. Tolerance is the solution to that particular viewpoint.

    To (b) religion’s public policy implications are limited in the West, and the solution is less to attack religion than to dispute specific policy claims based on religious beliefs that cannot be defended on other grounds.

    (c) has always appealed to intellectuals, from Mill onwards, but I am not sure that setting a life standard that only a tiny percentage of the population can meet makes much sense.

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  10. Rajat – I agree, though it is not uncommon for governments to take a while to find their identity. Rudd will have burnt out his senior staff in less time than in took Howard to appoint his. In 1996 you would not have picked Howard as a big-spending centralist. In 1983 you would not have picked the Hawke governmenta as a big economic reformer.

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  11. It undermines the argument that religion is harmful and should be attacked (perhaps via funding for private schools), but that is not a policy change likely to happen anytime soon.

    This came up in Q&A last night from Louise Adler. Religious private schools were then defended by Tony Abbott. Good show, I thought.

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  12. “It undermines the argument that religion is harmful…”

    Not necessarily.

    As it is used in contemporary English, “happiness” equivocates between at least two meanings:

    (1) a person’s objective condition (i.e. what some Aristotle scholars prefer to call “human flourishing”); and

    (2) a person’s subjective feelings and beliefs about their current condition and future prospects (which might include feelings like contentment, smugness and hope)

    It is fallacious to infer conclusions about (1) from survey responses about (2). For example, a person living in some Third World rubbish dump might, if they neither knew nor expected any better, say they were “happy” in sense (2) without being so by any reasonable standard of measurement in sense (1).

    So if Brooks has only found a link between religion and (2)happiness, there is still scope — as a matter of logic — for an argument that religion is harmful to (1)happiness.

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  13. Alan – In the sense that these surveys only measure subjective assessments – how people feel in relation to their own sense of what matters in life – that’s clearly true. But from a liberal perspective, we should give a fair amount of weight to how people feel about their own lives, regardless of whether or not we personally think that someone else’s life is a good one.

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  14. On (a), it’s traditionally the religious, not the irreligious, who are intolerant, with a consequent reduction in happiness amongst non-conformists.

    On (b), we get crazy public policy from the devout because their religion causes them to believe things that are simply not true (eg the world was created 5400 years ago, the soul is created at the moment an egg is fertilised, a devout hindu must have a son to pray for them, we should be guided by prophecy, god likes men – and sometimes women – to be circumcised, shops should not be open Sundays and of course the ever-popular one that unbelievers are going to hell and should be despatched there as soon as possible).

    On (c) it does not require everybody to be a Goethe for them to lead a richer and more enquiring life. Do you really prefer bogandom?

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  15. “But from a liberal perspective, we should give a fair amount of weight to how people feel about their own lives…” — Andrew Norton

    I agree.
    An anti-paternalistic, J.S. Mill-type liberal could typically be expected to say that even if someone is engaged in a practice that is harmful to them, the only justification for interference is that it is also harmful to others.
    That’s a policy maxim, and on its face it looks compatible with BOTH of the claims that
    (i) religion is objectively harmful to those who practice it, and
    (ii) religion makes those who practice it subjectively happier
    DD, above, appears to be trying to develop a liberal, harm-to-others version of (i)

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  16. Sorry, I meant to say that DD appears to be trying to develop a case that religion is (objectively) harmful to people other than those who choose to practice it

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