Happiness and Religion

September 9, 2010
By tomsander

Flickr photo by ronsho

The RNS blog has a post about the latest Gallup study that looks at the happiest countries world-wide.  Alfredo Garcia notes that 3 of the top 5 countries in happiness [Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands] are also the least religious countries in the world. Even Finland and Netherlands which were not in the top 5 least religious countries, were still relatively low in religiosity.

Garcia wonders whether there is a connection between happiness and lack of religion and he recommends Phil Zuckerman‘s Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, which describes how these secular countries can flourish socially without religion.

Of course, merely looking at bivariate rankings of countries is not the best way of looking for relationships.   These countries could differ in many ways other than religiosity that might explain what is going on.  And if there were a relationship, it could be that the high levels of happiness (or wealth) had caused citizens to desert religion.

A better way to look at the relationship between happiness and religion is by examining the same people over time, to control for any baseline levels of happiness or unhappiness they have.  Then one can see which people become more religious or less religious over time and whether this drives higher or lower levels of happiness.  We’ve done with the Faith Matters 2006 and 2007 panel surveys, and the results are described in American Grace and explained in greater detail in an academic article: Lim, Chaeyoon, and Robert D. Putnam. “Religion, Social Networks, and Subjective Well-Being.” American Sociological Review 75, no. 6 (December, 2010).

We found that religion did predict higher levels of happiness, and the variable that explained almost all of this relationship was not theology but religious attendance, working through greater number of friends at church.    If one practiced religion at home (saying grace, praying privately, etc.) it didn’t increase happiness.  And if one attended church regularly but didn’t develop friends at church, there was also little improvement in happiness.  We tested probably 3 dozen measures of religiosity, theology and religious practice and didn’t find any impact of these measures on happiness.  The conclusion:  praying alone is no fun.

Read more in American Grace, coming out in October, 2010.


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