Are religious people happier than atheists?

“Happiness is neither within us only, nor without us; it is the union of ourselves with God.”?- Blaise Pascal

“When a man is freed of religion, he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life.”?- Sigmund Freud

Are religious people happier than atheists? Freud, as you read in the quote above, did not believe so. He wasn’t a big fan of religion, seeing it as a neurosis, creating guilt and suppressing sexuality. However, Freud was also not a big fan of putting his ideas to the test. Luckily though, other people are, and now that happiness can be reliably measured, we can finally put this idea to the test.

The research, it turns out, actually contradicts what Freud believed – there does indeed appear to be a link between religion and happiness. Several studies have been done, but to give an example, one study found that the more frequently people attended religious events, the happier they were; 47% of people who attended several types a week reported that they were ‘very happy’, as opposed to 28% who attended less than monthly.

In practical terms, religious people have the upper hand on atheists in several other areas. They drink and smoke less, are less likely to abuse drugs, and they stay married longer. After a stressful even like bereavement, unemployment, or illness, those who worship don’t take it as hard and recover faster. All of the above are likely to be beneficial to a person’s happiness. Additionally, religious people, as a result of their beliefs, have a greater sense of meaning, purpose and hope in their lives.

Could this be divine intervention? Alas, these studies can’t inform us as to whether there is a God, only that people who believe in one tend to be happier. There are variables that need to be controlled for – religious people have communities that provide social support, and a belief system that provides structure to their lives and may alleviate some fears to a degree, such as the fear of death. So all we know for sure is that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people.

Come on, you didn’t expect all the answers, did you?

Refs:

Myers, D. G. (2000). Funds, Friends and Faith of Happy People. American Psychologist. 55(1), 56-67.

5 Comments

  • John Small Berries says:

    “One study found”? Who conducted the study? When? What was their methodology? Did they compare against people who attended similar numbers of non-religious events, to see if there was a similar pattern in reporting of happiness? Did they provide evidence of causality that the increased happiness was specifically associated with religious events, or does increased social activity lead to increased happiness regardless of whether or not it is religious in nature?

    You say that “several studies have been done” – did they all reach the same conclusions as the context-free pair of numbers from the single unidentified study you referred to?

    I don’t expect “all the answers”, no, but even the titles and authors of these mysterious studies would certainly be nice.

    • Warren Davies says:

      john,

      That data was from the National Opinion Research Center. No they didn’t study cause-effect, and they didn’t compare with attendees of non-religious events, and you’re right that’s an important factor to take into account. I imagine the social support and sense of coherence that religious beliefs ostensibly bring are beneficial to well-being.

      Yeah I was lazy with the referencing to save time, sorry about that. Google the reference I gave, the PDF is freely available. It has the references of all the mysterious studies I mentioned — including titles and authors! 🙂

      • John Small Berries says:

        The only place in that article where I see the numbers you quoted is in figure 8 – the source of which is credited as “the General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, 1972 to 1996”. The GSS is, as the name implies, a periodic survey; it produces raw data points and does not even attempt to determine correlation, let alone causation. To characterize it as a “study” is disingenuous at best.

  • Jorge says:

    I think the question is : Is it better to be happy or know the truth? I understanding preferable to comfort?

    Is it better to not know you have a deadly disease and be happy in your ignorance or is it better to know you’re living on borrowed time?

    I think George Bernard Shaw said it best:
    “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

    What I’m interested is which religious group is the most happy. Would this suggest that possibly the belief in that specific religion be the key to happiness, if that’s your goal?

    • Warren Davies says:

      Jorge,

      “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

      So what you’re saying is, if you quit drinking you should take up religion? 🙂

      “What I’m interested is which religious group is the most happy. Would this suggest that possibly the belief in that specific religion be the key to happiness, if that’s your goal?”

      John Small Berries won’t like even more cross-sectional data, but this Gallup study puts Jewish faith on top; although it’s close. Also, taken as a whole the “No Religion” group came out second to the Jewish faith, but that includes people who might be religious but not part of a formal religion (e.g., spiritual and new age as well as atheists and agnostics) I recall hearing about a study which found no statistically significant difference in well-being across religions, but I can’t find it.

      http://www.gallup.com/poll/145493/religious-higher-wellbeing-across-faiths.aspx

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