Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Where Happiness and Religion Meet

"True happiness... is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose." - Helen Keller 

            Happiness seems to be a life goal for many people. We try to find a lot of different ways to reach happiness, such as obtaining more money, seeking religion, our relationships, trying to find enlightenment, etc. I was interested in the correlation between happiness and religion, and more importantly, if certain religions were happier than others. What I ended up finding was a statistical jumbled mess (it hurt my head). I think my findings are interesting enough to share (plus, I spent hours looking all this up). If the statistics bore you, you can scroll down to the very bottom where my conclusion is.

            I set out to find a correlation between religion and happiness among the different religions that exist. To begin this, we have to first understand how religion can lead to people being happier. Dr. Edward Diener has studied happiness across cultures, and believes religion is one reason that makes people happier. Him and his son wrote a book about the subject, and believe that “happiness requires a recipe of ingredients mixed in the right amounts.” There are different things that make people happy, just as there are various reasons for depression.

            They found a few important things that all happy people seem to have. All happy people have supportive relationships. They also tend to be supportive themselves, because it is fulfilling to help others. Happy people often have purpose and meaning, “a devotion to people or goals that are larger than ourselves.” They also find activities where they can use their talents. All of these aspects can be found through religion, but can also be found without it, which is why both religious and non-religious people can be happy.

            Many studies show that religious people are happier on average. Diener’s research points out a few key ingredients for why this is. He says that positive spirituality brings “emotions such as love, awe, wonder, respect, and gratitude that connect us to others and to things larger than ourselves.” He adds, “Spirituality can focus us on larger causes than our own personal welfare, and this can give us purpose and meaning.” Other ingredients religion often gives are social support, optimism for an afterlife, a moral compass, and answers to larger questions.

            What puzzles them is that the happiest nations are often relatively nonreligious. Nigel Barber backs this finding when he claims, “The most religious states are the least happy based on Gallup data. This mirrors the pattern amongst countries.” Barber adds, “Countries with the highest average self-reported happiness are the least religious.” This information is very confusing when Diener’s research has shown that, “religious people have more positive feelings in most nations.” His analysis: "People most turn to religion when conditions in their society are tough – poverty, conflict, and so forth. When conditions are good, fewer people in a nation continue to be religious. Even then, the religious individuals report more positive emotions.”

            His conclusion is not new information to most people, especially those who are religious. As a Christian, it’s be discussed to me often by friends and church that we turn to God when we are most in need of Him. So, it makes complete sense that the poorest nations tend to be the most religious. Barber is one of the very few people I have found who argues that religion doesn’t make people happier, but is more of a coping mechanism. Yet, a lot of research has found that religious people report higher levels of happiness.

            Barber argues that the basic function of religion is to cope with anxiety. Religion has a soothing function that can be compared to anti-anxiety drugs and alcohol. Religious rituals and prayer “produces a slowing of heart rate and other signs of physiological calming.” In more developed countries, basic fears about food supply and illness are small, so they are happier and their quality of life is better. Thus, they don’t need religion to cope with their difficult lives. Also, in very religious places, many of which are poor countries, there exists a lot of misery because the quality of life is so low. Barber’s ultimate argument is that among global differences, religious people are actually miserable, but are less miserable than they would be. He believes quality of life is what actually determines happiness, and not religion.

            Yet, in a survey of 114,019 Europeans in 24 countries, it was found that those who belong to a religion report higher levels of happiness than those who do not. The survey found:
  • “Protestants, other Christian religions and Roman Catholics report higher happiness levels whereas Orthodox and Eastern religions report the lowest.”
  • “The more religious, the happier. However, those who consider themselves “not at all religious” have comparable levels of happiness to those" who consider themselves moderately religious.
  • “Those who attend religious services every day say they are happier than those who never attend.”
  • “Those who pray every day [report] higher levels of happiness than those who never pray.”
  • How often you attend services is more important to happiness levels than how often you pray.

            There is clearly a lot of research that points to religious people being happier. Yet, there is still that tricky information about the least religious countries being the happiest. So, here’s what I found.

The Statistics

            In 2009, Gallup surveys in 114 countries show that, “The global median proportion of adults who say religion is an important part of their daily lives is 84%, unchanged from what Gallup has found in other years.”
*The % shows the number of people in the country that answered yes to the question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Countries without the percentage were not surveyed.
*The % was from 2009, but the lists are from 2014 and 2015, so there is probably inaccuracy to how true the % is today, but everything I provided is the most recent information I could find.

Happiest Countries (World Happiness Report 2015)
1. Switzerland 41%
2. Iceland
3. Denmark 19%
4. Norway
5. Canada 42%
6. Finland
7. Netherlands (Holland)
8. Sweden 17%
9. New Zealand
10. Australia

10 Richest Nations (World Atlas 2014)
1. Qatar (Arab Nation) 95%
2. Luxembourg 39%
3. The United Arab Emirates 91%
4. Norway
5. Singapore 70%
6. The United States 65%
7. Switzerland 41%
8. Netherlands
9. Ireland 54%
10. Austria 

Best Well Being (2015)*
1. Panama 88%
2. Costa Rica 79%
3. Puerto Rico
4. Switzerland 41%
5. Belize
6. Chile 70%
7. Denmark 19%
8. Guatemala 88%
9. Austria
10. Mexico 73%
11. Uruguay 41%
12. Argentina 66%
13. Columbia 83%
14. Kyrgyzstan 72%
15. Brazil 87%

*146,000 people around the world were interviewed to rank 145 countries by the well being of their residents.
*Well-being: their sense of purpose, social relationships, financial situations, community involvement and physical health.
*Participants were considered "thriving," "struggling" or "suffering" in each of those five aspects. The list is of those who were thriving in three or more aspects.


            I included the richest nations, because money is one aspect of well-being and happiness, and if the poorest countries are the most religious, I was curious to see how religious the richest countries are. What this information shows is that the happiest countries are on the not-so-religious side. Yet, at least in 8 of the 15 top well-being countries, 70% of the population or more say religion is important in their daily lives. More than half of the countries with the best overall well-being are relatively religious. Among the richest nations, 3 are considered relatively religious (70% or higher), 2 are relatively non-religious (less than 50%), 2 are moderately religious (50-70%), and 3 are unknown.

            The Gallup has found that in the world’s poorest countries, “the median proportion who say religion is important in their daily lives is 95%.” This goes along with Barber’s theory that religion is used to alleviate anxiety, which means poorer countries rely on religion more. The Gallup agrees, “One theory is that religion plays a more functional role in the world's poorest countries, helping many residents cope with a daily struggle to provide for themselves and their families.”

            What’s interesting, though, is that the Gallup says, “In contrast, the median for the richest countries -- those with average per-capita incomes higher than $25,000 -- is 47%.” This percentage seems relatively low, because it’s the median. But if you look at each individual country, at least two of the richest countries in the world have over 90% of their population believing religion is important to them. The number one spot, Qatar, is at 95%, the highest percentage on the list. In other words, religion is not just a coping mechanism, though that is one of its functions. Religion can be incredibly important even among the most wealthy.

Different Religions

            To break this down even more, I set out to look at the percentage of different religions practiced in these countries. Since, it would take forever to go through each country on the list, I chose to look at the top four happiest countries (there wasn’t enough up to date accurate information for Canada).

Switzerland (2012)
Roman Catholic 38.2%
Protestant 26.9%
Muslim 4.9%
other Christian 5.7%
other 1.6%
none 21.4%
unspecified 1.3%

Iceland (2013)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (official) 76.2%
Roman Catholic 3.4%
Reykjavik Free Church 2.9%
Hafnarfjorour Free Church 1.9%
The Independent Congregation 1%
other religions 3.6% (includes Pentecostal and Asatru Association)
none 5.2%
other or unspecified 5.9%

Dominant religion: Christianity
Second dominant: Islam

Christian 55%
Non-religious 18%
Islam 22%
Buddhism 3%
other 2%

            For Switzerland, the happiest country in the world, less than half of the population say that religion is important in their daily lives. Berger tried to argue that the happiest countries are relatively not religious, yet in Switzerland, there are more people who claim a religious faith than those who do not. For the second happiest country, the majority of the population claims a faith. This trend holds true for these top happiest countries – there are more people who claim to be part of a religious faith than those who are non-religious. Though, this doesn’t mean the religious are practicing or devout, which is a very important factor to consider. 


            We finally come to the only study I found that tried to find which religions are happier, and the surveys took place in America, so the results only pertain to Americans and may or may not be true for the same religion in other countries. Catherine Rampell compiled different Gallup surveys to find that Jews are the happiest religious group in America. “The latest results are based on more than 372,000 interviews conducted in 2009 and 2010, and control for major demographic and regional variables,” says Rampell.
            Gallup has found that, “the very religious in general had higher levels of well-being than their less religious counterparts.” In every major religion, the very religious had higher levels of well-being than the moderately or non-religious. The levels of religiosity are based on service attendance and how important religion is in their daily lives.

            What’s really interesting about the Jewish is that though they have highest levels of well-being for very religious, moderately religious, and nonreligious, the majority of Jews say they are nonreligious. Their very religious have better well-being than their nonreligious. Yet, even their nonreligious have a better well-being than every other religious group, except for almost all of the very religious in each religion.

            Moderately and nonreligious Protestants have the lowest scores for well-being. Nonreligious other non-Christians have the lowest score in the chart. For no religion/atheist/agnostic, they scored highest on emotional health compared to all religions in the study. They ranked second for life evaluation and third for physical health. They ranked low for work environment and healthy behaviors. It's also important to note that these differences in well-being are relatively small.


            So what does this all this information tell us? Religious people are happier than non-religious on average. Among the religious, the very religious have the best overall well-being. Jewish Americans have the best well-being, but they aren't significantly happier than other religions or people. The poorest countries are the most religious. The richest countries have among them the most religious and relatively nonreligious. More than half of the countries with the best well-being are relatively religious. The happiest countries are relatively nonreligious, yet among them there are more religious than nonreligious people, but they do have more nonreligious than most other countries..

            Why did I find this important and want to share it? The most important reason for wanting to share this is that I spent forever finding all this information. But the second reason is that I wondered if people knew which religions were happier, would they change their own religion? I wondered this because finding true happiness seems to be the ultimate goal for a lot of people, so would their search for happiness outweigh their commitment to their faith? There’s no way of knowing this answer. But as important as happiness is to most people, I don’t think people choose religion to be happier. Religion is chosen because of a belief system, values, morals, and traditions. Happiness just often happens as a result of these choices, but you can clearly also find happiness without religion.


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