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.