In religious countries, including the U.S., religious people describe themselves as happier (1). In relatively godless countries, such as the Netherlands, or Denmark, religious people are not happier (2).
This striking inconsistency between the U.S. and godless countries may have a fairly simple explanation. 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 stressful.
Even within the U.S. there are curious inconsistencies. The most religious states are the least happy based on Gallup data. This mirrors the pattern amongst countries.
Countries with the highest average self-reported happiness are the least religious (3). The happiest nations are, in order, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands (4). Sweden, Denmark and Norway are the second, third, and fourth least religious countries, being exceeded only by formerly-communist Estonia in their atheism.
Why are the happiest countries also the least religious ones? Both happiness and religiosity are affected by the highly developed character of these countries. All score close to the top on the UN’s human development index that measures the overall quality of life in terms of health, wealth, and education.
Residents of highly developed countries are happy because their quality of life is better. The key factor may be an expectation of living to old age without fear of extreme poverty. Because they are confident in their own welfare, they have less need of religion as a salve for the difficulties of their lives.
Such confidence increases in societies where there is a well-developed welfare state that redistributes income from the wealthy to the less fortunate (3). This could help explain why the U.S. – with significant gaps in its government safety nets - is more religious than Europe despite having a similar level of economic development (1).
Religion as security blanket
In widely read earlier posts, I argued that the basic function of religion is coping with anxiety. More specifically, it helps people to deal with the stress of uncertainty from third-world living conditions. In countries with a better standard of living, basic anxieties about food supply and illness recede and religion fades along with them.
If this is true then, religion has a primary soothing function rather like the security blanket from which a small child derives comfort. We now have good scientific evidence that religious rituals and prayer work in just this way. Each produces a slowing of heart rate and other signs of physiological calming (5).
This implies that the psychological effects of religious rituals are analogous to those of anti-anxiety drugs like tranquillizers or alcohol (5). Religion is a downer in terms of effects on the brain.
So how does this help us to understand why religious people in the same community are happier than their less religious counterparts?
In very religious places, there is a great deal of misery because the quality of life is abysmal. Think of Afghanistan, or Somalia. Within that environment, the security blanket of religion may be the only effective anti-anxiety agent around. As a result, people who are deeply religious can achieve a level of calm that eludes their less religious neighbors.
In developed countries, there are two key difference. First, the quality of life is so much better that large numbers of people (even the majority) can turn their backs on religion. Second, there are many other avenues for anxiety reduction that range from anti-anxiety drugs to endless entertainment.
In the grand scheme of global differences, religious people are actually quite miserable. Yet, thanks to religious beliefs and practices they are less miserable than they would otherwise be. If you want to be happier, the last thing you should do would be to move to a religious country. You might consider living in a country like Sweden instead where most people are happy atheists.
1. Koenig, H. G. (2008). Medicine, religion and health: Where science and spirituality meet. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
2. Snoep, L. (2008). Religiousness and happiness in three nations. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 207-211.
3. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
4. Gallup (2010). Religiosity highest in world’s poorest nations. Accessed at: http://www.gallup.com in July 2011.
5. Paul-Labrador, M. D. et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166, 1218-1224.