Clay Routledge Ph.D.

More Than Mortal

Are Religious People Happier Than Non-religious People?

The reasons why religious affiliation and happiness go hand in hand.

Posted Dec 05, 2012

Are religious people happier than non-religious people? The short answer is yes. There has been a considerable amount of research addressing this question and findings tend to indicate that religious people are (or at least report being) happier than non-religious people. There are some studies out there that do not find this effect. However, the lion’s share of the data on this topic suggests that levels of happiness are greatest amongst religious folks.

That being said, this question becomes more interesting if you ask the follow-up question of why religious people are happier. Religion may promote happiness for a number of reasons as studies show that religion gives people a sense of purpose and order and serves as a resource for coping with negative life experiences and existential fears (e.g., the fear of death). However, a number of studies really seem to suggest that the magic ingredient in religion that provides happiness is social connectedness. Though people, especially in individualistic nations like the United States, talk about religion as an internal or personal belief system, the truth is that religion is rarely done in solitude. Instead, religion is typically a social activity and research indicates that social ties are one of the most important contributors to happiness. So let us consider some studies that highlight social connectedness as the cause of religious-inspired happiness.

Diener and Seligman found that statistically controlling for social relationships eliminates the association between religiosity and well-being. In other words, religious people report having more social ties and if you take this into account statistically, religion by itself does not predict happiness.

Similarly, Salsman, Brown, Brechting, & Carlson found that feelings of social support mediate the relationship between religiosity and well-being. Religious people report higher levels of social support and higher levels of social support lead to higher levels of psychological well-being.

Okulicz-Kozaryn found that religion is only associated with greater life satisfaction in countries in which most people are religious. In relatively non-religious nations, religion does not appear to lead to life satisfaction. This finding suggests that in many countries religion is one of the primary ways of acquiring social ties and social capital. If religion is the social norm, it may be hard (but clearly not impossible) to have a rich social network and to feel socially valued. And having a rich social network and feeling socially valued are key ingredients to finding happiness.

I’ll mention one last study that I found particularly interesting. Cohen-Zada and Sander examined the effect of the repeal of blue laws on church attendance and happiness. Blue laws prohibit retail stores from being open on Sundays. Over time, many states have repealed these laws, thus allowing stores to open for business on the day traditionally reserved for rest and worship. Amongst women, the repeal of blue laws was associated with decreased church attendance and decreased happiness. I guess church makes women happier than shopping. Who would have guessed?

This finding is interesting because the repeal of blue laws should have no effect on internal religious beliefs. However, the repeal of blue laws did appear to have a social impact. That is, church is a social activity and the repeal of blue laws reduced church attendance which in turn led to lower levels of happiness (for women).

So, religious people (at least in the United States and other religious countries) are happier on average than non-religious people. But, the key variable does not appear to be religion itself. Instead, it is the social connections that religious life facilitates that make people happy.

References and Further Readings

Brooks, A. C. (2008). Gross national happiness: Why happiness matters for America—and how we can get more of it. New York: Basic Books.

Cohen-Zada, D. & Sander, W. (2011) Religious Participation versus Shopping: What Makes People Happier? Journal of Law and Economics.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13, 81-84.

Okulicz-Kozaryn, A. (2010). Religiosity and life satisfaction across nations. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 13, 155-169.

Salsman, J. M., Brown, T. L., Brechting, E. H., & Carlson, C. R. (2005). The link between religion and spirituality and psychological adjustment: The mediating role of optimism and social support. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 522–535.

About the Author

Clay Routledge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

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