Does religion make you happy?
Pursuing happiness is seen as the ultimate life goal by many in Western cultures. But will religion help in the search for happiness?
The Lord has promised good to me, says the popular 18th-century hymn Amazing Grace. But does believing in a certain religion actually make you a happier person?
According to a global survey by Pew, the answer is roughly yes. Those who attended a religious meeting at least once a month, were happier than religiously inactive or unaffiliated in more than half of the surveyed countries. But what is it exactly in religion that affects the happiness of religious people? And what could explain the differences between countries?
Intrinsic religiosity leads to greater life satisfaction
Religion can affect wellbeing indirectly and directly. Indirectly, religion can affect habits, behaviours, and attitudes that are positively related to wellbeing, like lower levels of substance abuse, commitment to marriage, coping mechanisms, optimism, social support, and finding purpose and meaning in life. Directly, religion can have a positive effect on wellbeing by the relationships formed in a religious community, as connectedness and sense of belonging are important factors contributing to wellbeing.
However, not all religiosity has the same effect on wellbeing. Different traditions have a different set of beliefs, practices, and emphases that affect happiness. Religious beliefs and customs between individuals are also varied.
Religiosity can be classified into institutional, ideological, and intrinsic religiosity. The least impact on wellbeing has been found in institutional religion, meaning participation in religious rites and extrinsic religiosity. Ideological religion, which contains religious attitudes and beliefs, slightly affects life satisfaction and self-actualisation. The biggest impact on wellbeing has been found in intrinsic religion, which involves emotional commitment and inner certainty. It has a positive effect on mental health, life satisfaction, and self-actualisation.
Different religion – different outcome
Some types of religiosity seem to have a greater effect on religious wellbeing than others. In a study comparing the wellbeing of Roman Catholics, Orthodoxes, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, others (e.g. ancestral worshipping), and the nonreligious, significant differences between religions were found. This study divided wellbeing into life satisfaction (a person’s own evaluation of their life) and happiness (emotions, feelings, and moods). In terms of happiness, Protestants and Buddhists were the happiest groups, whereas Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists experienced most life satisfaction. The lowest level of life satisfaction and happiness was found among Orthodox Christians. The study concluded that religions that promote values such as freedom of choice, freedom of emotions, gratitude, and social connections, can improve the sense of wellbeing of their members.
Happiness has no easy answers
The relationship between happiness and religion is a complex one. For example, Orthodox Christians in Latin America are happier than those in Eastern Europe, and Spanish non-religious people are happier than the religious.
Wellbeing consists of a number of factors, such as state of health, financial satisfaction, freedom of choice, mental health, life satisfaction, self-actualisation, social connections, and belonging to a group. Religion is one, but not the only, factor that can contribute to happiness. According to twin studies, biology and genetics make up around 50% of a person’s happiness, and 40% comes from a person’s own attitudes and habits. Interestingly, studies found that only 10% came from health, nationality, wealth, and marital status. Religion, especially the intrinsic type of religiosity, affects attitudes and habits, and can play a role in health, wealth, and social connections as well, thus contributing to overall wellbeing.
So, then – can happiness be found in religion? Well, maybe. Religion can be a major contributor to one’s perceived wellbeing. But, not all types of religiosity have the same effect. It might be worthwhile to examine if you are satisfied with how your religious affiliation affects your life.
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