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Why does religion make people happier?

February 8th, 2013

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It has been long established by research that religious observance provides a number of health and wellbeing benefits, including a higher level of happiness. But why is this so?

The social and personal benefits of religious belief

The sociological research is fairly clear. Whether religious belief is true or false, it has benefits, including:

  • To society: “Typically, when researchers study religion, they find that it brings various benefits to society: cohesion, cooperation, trust, etc.” (Science on Religion)
  • Happiness: “It’s also true, researchers say, that people who regularly attend religious services enjoy a boost in their happiness.” (Chicago Tribune News)
  • Health: “Recent research findings indicate the link between health and religious beliefs may be stronger and more deeply intertwined than previously thought.” (About.com)

Why the happiness?

Researchers are unsure whether it is the actual belief in God, or associated factors. But they have found a number of effects, according to The Chicago Tribune News:

Church as community

Singing stirring songs in unison with others, as occurs in most church services, can be a great benefit says Ellen Idler, professor of sociology at Emory University.

“Regular and frequent religious attendance does seem to be one of the significant predictors of less stress and more life satisfaction,” says Scott Schieman, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. “It just puts people in touch with like-minded congregants,”, and thus produces many of the benefits of a strong social network.

Health

Believers generally have lower mortality rates than average, while adherents of faith traditions that emphasise healthy eating and living (e.g. Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Amish) have significantly lower mortality rates, which presumably increases happiness.

These benefits may come more from the lifestyle than the belief, but according to Ellen Idler, you can’t separate the two: “if you want to have people follow a really restrictive lifestyle over their entire life, you have to have something that holds them together and perpetuates it. You could take religion out of the equation and it would fall apart.”

Meaning and purpose

Feeling that our lives have meaning and order can be very important. Scott Schieman: “most people want to feel that there’s a sense of order, a sense of certainty [in life] rather than a cold randomness …. Religion provides answers to a lot of these questions and if not answers, at least a big answer: There is God. There is a sense of meaning.”

Research shows that one of the main predictors of happiness and wellbeing is being part of something worthwhile that is bigger than oneself. Religious belief can obviously provide that sense of meaning in life. Janet Ramsey, pastor and theology professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota: “people in a faith tradition find ways for their lives to intersect with that larger narrative …. There is power there that gives meaning to life …. It makes you feel like you are part of an ongoing relationship that is bigger than yourself.”

Helping others tends to make us happier, and studies show that religious believers tend to volunteer more in programs to help others.

Mental health

Religion and spirituality also can help people forgive others and themselves. Janet Ramsay: “Some language and beliefs and rituals are provided [by religion] that help people with their needs for forgiveness ….. We finally make peace with the things we have done.”

Ramsay also sees benefits for elderly people. “The approach of death, coupled with a loss of control during the last days of life, can easily lead to anxiety and anger,” she recently wrote. “Spirituality is one pathway among others that appears to mediate end-of-life anxiety by allowing older persons to remain peaceful, even when facing their own death and losing personal control.”

Learning from the research

None of this proves that religion is true, but it does have implications for both believers and unbelievers.

  • Believers will naturally feel that it offers support for their belief. If religious belief did not lead to wellbeing and happiness, we can be sure that critics would use this as an argument. So the fact that it does have benefits must add something to the believers’ assurance. And of course, if christian belief is true, then the sense of purpose and wellbeing is based not just in psychology, but in reality.
  • Some atheists make a great point of arguing that religion is harmful. This, and all the other, research suggests that those who trust scientific evidence need to be a little more cautious. Some forms of religion may cause social and personal problems, but the research is clear that this is not normally the case. Perhaps non-believers can temper their criticisms in the light of these facts?

Read more

Summaries of other studies are at Faith and Wellbeing.

See also People who believe in God are happier.

Photo: MorgueFile

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