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This video discusses the idea that religious people are happier.

Are there:

  • any sources that support or contradict the claims?
  • any scientific papers that address the issue?
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Actually it would be a better summary to say that somebody makes a claim that religious people are happier and the video debunks the idea – apoorv020 Apr 9 '11 at 19:08
@apoorv020: The video actually does not debunk, it talks about ways to debunk. – picakhu Apr 9 '11 at 19:21
1) How to measure happiness? 2) Bias: As soon as people get the clue that you're interested in investigating a possible correlation, they will answer that, yes, they're indeed very happy with their religion, or that they're indeed very happy without any religion. 3) A higher correlation between atheism and suicide wouldn't mean that atheism makes them unhappier, in the same way that the recent suicides by homosexual teenagers where not due to homosexuality itself, but to society's negative reaction towards it. – Lagerbaer Apr 9 '11 at 21:00
I tend to be extraordinarily happy according to all my peers including the religious ones - and a devout atheist, of the Douglas Adams and Chris Hitchens school. Not certain that means all atheists are happy, but it sure shows I'm happier than a good number of religious folks. Argument either way = zero :-) – Rory Alsop Apr 9 '11 at 21:27
are happy people religious? – justin cress Apr 9 '11 at 23:14
up vote 24 down vote accepted

It depends on where you look. And exactly as people have said, what defines happiness.

According to some studies, religious people tend to be happier.

Researchers accidentally discovered that people with religious beliefs tend to be more content in life while studying an unrelated topic. While not the original objective, the recent European study found that religious people are better able to cope with shocks such as losing a loved one or getting laid off of a job.

But then you look at overall country happiness, and very secular, irreligious nations like the Scandinavian nations are rated as the happiest.

"The Scandinavian countries do really well," says Jim Harter, a chief scientist at Gallup, which developed the poll. "One theory why is that they have their basic needs taken care of to a higher degree than other countries. When we look at all the data, those basic needs explain the relationship between income and well-being."

I think it is safe to say that religiousness may not be the main factor in determining happiness, rather other factors, and the correlation is incidental. People searching for a specific correlation and causation will find what they are looking for. In general, a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy at work in both cases.

For instance, in the religious community, there is a ready made support structure in place for religious people.

It's not their spirituality, belief in heaven, or even the ritual act of praying or going to a house of worship that leads the pious to happiness. Rather, the study found, it's the close friends people gain through their religions that makes a difference.

This may be a bigger contributor to happiness than religion or no-religion.

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My small problem with this post is that, you are saying that other factors are probably more important. But what if those parameters are a constant? Are the religious in Scandinavia happier than the non-religious? – picakhu Apr 9 '11 at 23:11
It depends on where you look, and how you look (as I said in the answer). Anecdotally, the deeply religious people I met in Scandinavia were less happy, because they saw the society they were living in as not meeting up to their expectations and dogmas. – Larian LeQuella Apr 10 '11 at 0:28
id argue religious people may be more likely to report being happy, whether they are or not. Not to insinuate anything about religious people generally, but, people tend to respond to surveys by reporting what they think the best answer is, not the honest answer. People may over report their religious commitment and happiness levels in non-random ways. – justin cress Apr 10 '11 at 7:26
With such a generic and subjective term as "happy" I can't possibly see any other answer than "it depends". – Sklivvz Apr 11 '11 at 5:43
@justin cress: Why wouldn't atheists overreport their happiness, rather than only religious people? – David Thornley Apr 13 '11 at 2:31

Yes, according to this study and this book (see chapter 16), religiosity correlates with happiness, though it may be religious attendance and not religious belief that really matters (Chida et al. 2009).

There are many factors that correlate with happiness, and there are effective methods to become happier - religious or not. For more info, and a ton of references, read How to Be Happy (free online).

Sources, in case the links break: 1) Religiosity, subjective well-being, and neuroticism, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Volume 13, Issue 1, 2010, Pages 67-79. 2) The science of subjective well-being By Michael Eid, Randy J. Larsen. 3) Association between attendance at religious services and self-reported health in 22 European countries, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 69, Issue 4, August 2009, Pages 519-528.

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Raw correlations are meaningless on a question like this, especially if we're interested in causation. Any number of hypothetical covariates could drive a correlation between reported religiosity and well-being. (Income, family/domestic environment, urban vs. rural residence... to name a few). I can't imagine a natural experiment which would provide the instrument needed for this regression – justin cress Apr 10 '11 at 7:35

To add to Larian LaQuella’s answer, this recent study¹ investigated the impact of the a country’s religiosity on the psychological benefits of being religious. In brief, they used data gathered from an online-dating site and investigated the correlations between social self-esteem or psychological adjustment on the one hand and religiosity on the other hand in some European countries. They mainly found positive correlations but these in turn were correlated with the religiosity of the respective country, with the correlations being very low or non-existant, e.g., in Sweden. They conclude:

Overall, believers claimed greater social self-esteem and psychological adjustment than nonbelievers did. However, culture qualified this effect. Believers enjoyed psychological benefits in countries that tended to value religiosity, but did not differ from nonbelievers in countries that did not tend to value religiosity.

Another study² reports that it failed to replicate this effect:

Analysis of data from the European Social Survey revealed no significant interactions between country-level religiosity and individual religiosity in predicting psychological well-being.

Unfortunately I do not have access to this paper to provide further details.

¹ Gebauer et al., Psychological Science 23.2 (2012): 158–160.
² Pirutinsky, Journal of Religion and Health 52.3 (2013): 782–784.

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There are a number of studies and peer-reviewed books (e.g. Norris and Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide; Stolt et al, Economic Inequality, Relative Power, and Religiosity) which identify a link between religiosity and material insecurity. If you live in a place where with harsher poverty, or which is more economically unequal, then religiosity tends to be higher.

There are some notable exceptions, such as China and Vietnam, which have harsh poverty but low religiosity. This can be explained by the government effectively suppressing religion.

It explains what we see Scandinavia: there is no need for religiosity since those societies are fairly equal. It also explains the United States, which is one of the most economically unequal developed countries in the world. In fact, it's even true of individual states in the US: states with higher economic inequality tend to be more religious, and states with lower economic inequality tend to be less so.

So it seems like a plausible theory that if things are bad, religion helps you cope with it. Opiate of the masses, indeed.

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