In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama received a lot of hate mail for saying "bitter" voters "cling to guns or religion" in response to hard times. Obama later apologized and reneged. When I read about this in the news, I thought to myself, instead of judging him, why not investigate whether this idea has merit. If people are religious, are they more likely to be happy? Does the link between happiness and religiosity change during difficult times? When people are feeling good, are they less likely to commit effort toward religious practice?
Thankfully, a large number of scientists have entered this hot-button territory. Depending on what you want the answer to be, you could find a single study to support your side. For instance, the National Opinion Research Center collected data on church attendance and happiness ratings from 34,706 people from 1972-1996. The data are clear—the more often you go to church, the happier you report your life to be. But of course, there are many motives for attending church and thus, this might not be the best measure of religiosity.
We can turn to meta-analyses, which prevent us from being bogged down by the sampling biases or methodological weaknesses of any study. In a meta-analysis, a research team culls together everything that has been studied on a topic and quantifies the trend across this body of work. In 1985, researchers analyzed 56 different effects to determine whether being religious is associated with greater well-being in adults. They found that endorsing a religion, led to a correlation of .16 with well-being. If you focused on religious activity, or how often someone prayed, attended a church/synagogue/mosque, or read scriptures, the correlation with happiness was nearly identical at .18. If you focused on the feeling of satisfaction derived from being religious or connected with a higher power, the correlation with happiness was only .13.
You might be asking yourself, how the hell do I make sense of whether correlations between .13 and .18 are meaningful? Good question. To help, using quantitative summaries of some of the most widely discussed findings in psychology, you can estimate the magnitude of a meaningful correlation:
Subliminal advertising increases sales—at a correlation of .00 (seemed too good to be true)
People are more aggressive when they are hot—at a correlation of .03 (contrary to layperson beliefs)
People are likely to recycle if they are concerned about the environment—at a correlation of .11 (forget what people say, it's what they do)
People who are physically attractive are intelligent—at a correlation of .14 (the same magnitude as the link between religion and happiness).
People are likely to help others if they are in a good mood—at a correlation of .26 (despite all of those self-help books on positivity, this is far from a sweeping endorsement that feeling good ensures kindness).
Put into context, you notice that the correlation between being religious and being happy is unimpressive. And in case you think I am cherry picking the data, a 2003 meta-analysis of 34 studies of religiosity and well-being, led to the same conclusion. Overall, the correlation between being a religious person and low distress was only .02, high life satisfaction was only .12, and feeling that one reached self-actualization was only .24. And using a 2011 study of 353,845 individuals from 50 states and the District of Columbia conducted by The Gallup Organization, researchers found that believing that religion was an important part of your life correlated a mere .06 with life satisfaction, and a flat .00 with negative feelings and .06 with positive feelings in daily life. Again, unimpressive.
Maybe it is not religion per se that leads to a sense of subjective well-being, high quality of life, or strong psychological adjustment (pick your favorite term). Maybe religion offers one path that may or may not lead to a desirable life. After all, when researchers explored why religion is related at all to well-being, they found that the reasons include: a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning in life, and a greater ability to exercise self-control (for the temptations and desires inherent in everyday life).
And perhaps even more interesting, when times are difficult, Obama was right—people do turn to religion and one reason for this is that they extract a greater sense of well-being from these beliefs. My colleagues and I found that for people who endorse a religion, a bad day was linked to an increase in religious behavior, such as meditation or prayer on the next. A good day was associated with fewer religious behaviors. If today you're in a funk, tomorrow you're much more likely to be spiritually inclined, to engage in spiritual practices and double down on things that transcend humanity. And this paid off. People reported greater meaning in life the day after they engaged in religious practices.
As further evidence that the presence of distress matters, Ed Diener and his colleagues dissected a Gallup World Poll of 455,104 individuals from 154 nations. What they found was that in healthy nations (where basic needs are being met, when people feel safe walking home alone at night, etc.), there was no advantage to being religious — both religious and non-religious people reported feeling respected and socially supported, and as a result both reported being happy. But in unhealthy nations, religion offered an advantage, in terms of an uptick in well-being. It ends up that your life circumstances influence the presence and benefits of being religious.
These findings highlight how "clinging" to religion shouldn't necessarily be seen in a negative light. Happiness is fleeting, but profound meaning is akin to a stable operating system for working through adversity and appreciating abundance. It is important to know that religion is only one path to well-being, and a path that on average, provides only slight assurance that well-being is a given.
For More Information on Studies Mentioned:
Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. G. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1278-1290.
Hackney, C. H., & Sanders, G. S. (2003). Religiosity and mental health: A meta–analysis of recent studies. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42, 43-55.
Kashdan, T.B., & Nezlek, J.B. (2012). Whether, when, and how is spirituality related to well-being? Moving beyond single occasion questionnaires to understanding daily process. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1526-1538.
McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 69-93.
Richard, F. D., Bond Jr, C. F., & Stokes-Zoota, J. J. (2003). One Hundred Years of Social Psychology Quantitatively Described. Review of General Psychology, 7, 331-363.
Witter, R. A., Stock, W. A., Okun, M. A., & Haring, M. J. (1985). Religion and subjective well-being in adulthood: A quantitative synthesis. Review of Religious Research, 26, 332-342.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com