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Are Religious People Happier?

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Some authors are so confident that religion makes people happier, and healthier, that they want it to be prescribed by doctors (1). In a recent book, I debunked the health claim: the seeming benefits of religion can be attributed to social support, health behavior, and other secular factors. Now I want to question the claim that religion makes people happier.

One of the best-known findings is that religion protects people against depression. According to a 2003 meta analysis (2) that combined the results of 147 different studies, religiosity explains less than 1 percent of the differences in vulnerability to depression. If religion has such small correlations with depression, it may not be a huge factor in happiness either.

Comparing countries

Such doubt emerges most strongly from comparisons between countries. Much of the research linking religiosity and happiness was conducted in the U.S. where more religious people are slightly happier. Researchers saw this as evidence for the universal benefits of religion (a perspective that interests evolutionary psychologists like myself because it helps explain why religion is so common around the globe). Yet, there is no association between religiousness and happiness in either Denmark or the Netherlands.

Why the difference? Religious people are in the majority in the U.S., but in a minority in Denmark and the Netherlands. Feeling part of the mainstream may be comforting whereas being in the minority is potentially stressful. Ethnic minorities around the world tend to have higher blood pressure, for example -- this being a reliable index of stress.

If religion contributes to happiness, then the most religious countries should be happiest. Yet, the opposite is true.

According to Gallup data for 2010, the happiest nations were Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands. These are among the least religious countries in the world. Also according to Gallup data, Sweden, Denmark and Norway were the second, third, and fourth least religious states, being exceeded only by Estonia in their atheism.

Why are these European countries so happy? Their happiness is explainable in terms of a combination of national wealth and redistribution of resources via high taxation and a well-developed welfare state. So paying taxes makes people happy after all!

It is not the actual payment of taxes that cheers citizens of course but the end result of good government which is to say a secure standard of living for everyone.

In the jargon of religious studies, the European social democracies provide existential security. No one has to worry about being arbitrarily dismissed from their job and running out of money for basic necessities.

The principal source of European happiness is also the main reason for their unprecedented level of atheism. As detailed in an earlier post, when countries become more affluent, and their people acquire greater material security, their religious temperature nose dives.

Sources
1. Koenig, H. G. (2008). Medicine, religion and health: Where science and spirituality meet. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
2. Smith, T. B., MacCullough, M. E., and Poll. J. (2003). Religiousness and depression. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 614-636.