Does religion make you happier, or does it simply amplify what you already have?
Dr. Edward Diener, a psychologist who has studied happiness in various cultures, believes that those who have a belief system are happier. He may be right.
Religion has two important things going for it that can add to personal happiness. The first is a sense of community built among those with the same belief system. Out of this community comes a social connection that can be helpful and supportive in many ways. It is a positive sense of belonging we all seem to look for in our lives.
The second is a firm conviction that you're not alone in life. The idea that there is a loving, caring God to whom you can go for guidance, coupled with the belief that life doesn't end after death, is comforting. This can add to your happiness. It can create personal happiness, successful living, and individual growth.
Religion can be good for you. If you look at people who truly believe in their faith and a benevolent God, you will find those who see themselves as worthy of happiness. God loves them, what could be better than that? They generally attract like-minded individuals into their lives because that is what they are subconsciously looking for. They don't allow themselves to be made to feel less than what they know they are worth. Their religion confirms who they are and what they achieve in life. Happiness is a by-product of faith.
But my friend and colleague Rabbi Ben Berenbaum cautions that religion can also be bad for you: "If you had a religious experience that made you feel miserable and fearful then religion affects your happiness in adverse ways. You can't feel a strong connection to a punishing God."
This statement is seconded by Bill Taylor, an Episcopal priest, who adds, "Religious experience is everything. While religion doesn't guarantee you'll be happy, a good one can be a catalyst that ups the odds for happiness in life; a bad one has little value."
The belief in a higher power does seem to be a happiness factor for many people. We go on spiritual searches to find the right match for our needs. Perhaps that is why some people are willing to change belief systems. We are looking for a feeling of belonging and peace that is comforting as well as comfortable.
A constant factor in one's personal happiness is the achievement of one's goals. Religion is a great help in this instance because it helps one to feel that they are not alone in their quest. There is help and hope available from someone or something greater than yourself. It takes the worry out of making decisions when you know that a powerful force is looking out for you.
Can you be happy even if you're not religious? Yes. As Bill Taylor said, religion doesn't guarantee happiness. Happiness is created from both inside and outside forces in your life. Successfully combining both is the key.
Yet during the days leading up to Passover and Easter, a sense of the peace that can lead to happiness seems to follow those people who have strong beliefs. Maybe religion doesn't make you happy, but perhaps it does enhance what happiness you do have. The connection seems to affirm this.