Happiness and Religion- Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral

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Fact: religion increases happiness.

But if you are not a religious person, can you get the positive benefits of religion? Read on to find out more…

If you are interested in learning in positive psychology the way that I am you may wonder if gratitude, happiness, and wellbeing are more likely for people who are religious.

Let me give you the short answer.

Why Does Religion Increase Happiness?

They are. People who claim adherence to some sort of higher power are both more likely to experience gratitude and happiness. It doesn’t matter what religion you adhere to.

Why?

  1. The social support provided by a religious community is unmatched by all other modern institutions.
  2. Spirituality is highly correlated with increased feelings of gratitude, respect, and optimism.
  3. Religion provides purpose and meaning in life.

Each of the elements identified above is in turn highly correlated with well-being and happiness.

Not Religious?? See more ideas on how to be happy. 

The social support provided by a religious community is unmatched by all other modern institutions.

And it is likely to stay that way for decades, centuries, or more.

At a high level, the four components which make religious communities social capital generators are: trust (e.g. “being in a cathedral builds up my sense of trust in other people”), bonding (e.g. “being in the cathedral helps me to make friends”), bridging (e.g. “being in the cathedral helps me to meet new people and contribute to community life”), and linking (e.g. “I have met important people through my involvement in the cathedral).2

Each of those individual components can be found elsewhere, but never as strong.

  • The level of trust you have of others in your congregation will be much stronger than your trust of those at your book club or dinner parties.
  • Bonding opportunities at your workplace may exist, but the primary function of work is to work, not bond.
  • Volunteering can help you meet new people and contribute to community life, but in my experience, religious groups get more done, have more enthusiasm for their cause, and form stronger relationships with one another and those whom they meet.
  • It’s possible to network with community leaders or powerful bankers, but the interaction just isn’t the same as when it’s between two equals in church, under the eyes of God.

There have been many attempts by secular organizations to adopt some of these elements. To my knowledge, failure or partial success have been the only outcomes. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

Religion and Happiness

Let’s look at another set of facts about religion and happiness.

Over 24 year the national opinion research center ran a massive study. This study was on church attendance and happiness ratings. nearly 35,000 people participated in this study from 1972 – 1996.

There was a lot of nuance in the results. But it boiled down to people who went to church “sometimes” (less than once a month) but felt connected to a higher power were 28% more likely to experience happiness. Then the percentages rose in line with how much time the participants spent at church up to the participants who went to church “several times a week” who were 48% more likely to be happy than their non-churchgoing counterparts.

Religion is highly correlated with increased feelings of gratitude, respect, and optimism.

On this component, I have hope.

  1. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude through secular practice generates increasing feelings of respect and optimism.3
  2. Cultivating an attitude of optimism through secular practice generates increased feelings of gratitude and respect.
  3. Cultivating self-respect by actively changing your behavior and social assets to be worthy of your respect generates increased feelings of gratitude and optimism.

It’s a fantastic positive feedback loop.

The ordering is intentional – it is easier to cultivate an attitude of gratitude that is one of optimism, which in turn is easier than cultivating authentic self-respect.

Yes, church and God make cultivating each of those components much easier, but even without them, it can be done.

Happiness and Religion: Is the difference gratitude?

You may have noticed in the above section that we mentioned some of the effects of gratitude as being an important piece of the pie for happiness in religion.

While there are certainly many factors for why people who are religious are happier than their general counterparts it should be noted that gratitude is one of the key differences. Many studies have shown that people who are religious show much higher levels of both happiness gratitude than their atheist and agnostic counterparts. While the benefits of gratitude are many and quite well studied, how much does cause equal causation in the case of religion, happiness and gratitude?

Ultimately everyone will make their own decisions on why this measurable difference exists. But let’s take a look at a few of the studies relating to gratitude, happiness, and religion.

In one study, grateful people reported higher intrinsic religiosity (engaging with religion for its own sake) and lower extrinsic religiosity (engaging with religion for other gains, such as improved social status) (Watkins et al., 2003)

Other studies have found positive associations between gratitude and a number of religious attributes, including frequently engaging in religious practices, ascribing importance to religion, having a personal relationship with God, experiencing spiritual transcendence (Emmons 2005)

A 2011 study replicated most of the findings of the 2005 experiment (above) with the added wrinkle of finding that expressing religious commitment was another import factor for increased gratitude. (Rosmarin et al. 2011)

Then there is a 2015 study that examined the relationship between gratitude and religion in young adults (those aged 17 to 24). This study found that religious efficacy, defined as “experiencing an answer to one’s prayers and/or a miracle from God” and having religious friends positively associated with feelings of gratitude.  This study also noted that private devotion, religious affiliation, otherworldly belief and the impact of religion on person’s daily life were unrelated to feelings of gratitude. (Kraus, Desmond, & Palmer, 2015).

This study brings an interesting angle. That (for young adults at least) it may be less the fact that they are religious but more about who they connect with on a social level. This reminds me of the classic Jim Rohn idea that we are the sum of the five people we spend the most time with.

Of course, this is just one study. Let’s see what other studies say…

A 2017 study (Morgan et al., 2017) showed that Christians reported a much higher level of gratitude on questionnaires than their atheist counterparts.

Happiness, religion, gratitude & well-being.

Overall wellbeing (physical and mental health) has been linked to happiness & gratitude in hundreds of studies. And of course, some of these studies have included the variable of religious preferences into the mix.

For example, a longitudinal study of older U.S. adults found that: 1) prolonged financial difficulties were associated with depressive symptoms over time in less grateful older people, and 2) older adults who attended church more frequently and had stronger beliefs that God helps people overcome their difficulties showed (Krause, 2009)

Yet another study found evidence that religious attitudes had a  significant positive association with gratitude. And this is regardless of whether someone generally experiences more positive or negative affect (Rothenberg et al.  2015).

Why does religion matter for happiness and gratitude?

So what do these studies show us? Why does religion make such a big difference when it comes to happiness, gratitude, and wellbeing?

It helps people keep their gratitude in the face of hardship and emotional distress. Religion encourages this and provides a support system. Allowing people to keep their gratitude both to other people and to God when times get tough.

The ways it does this are manifold. But the important points are:

  • Social support is inherent to religious involvement.
  • The act of prayer stimulates gratitude.
  • Religion encourages seeing negative events as lessons.
  • Hard times often encourage people to form a stronger bond with God. Strengthening not weakening feelings of gratitude.

Religion provides purpose and meaning in life.

It really does. But there are other ways. They are more difficult, but science is starting to identify the elements that give rise to vital engagement, passion, purpose, and meaning.

The four criteria I’ve identified so far, which apply to work and hobbies alike, are:

  • Frequent opportunities to enter into a state of flow.
  • Frequent opportunities to use and develop your strengths.
  • Frequent opportunities to develop social connections.
  • Frequent opportunities to act in alignment with your values and beliefs.

Some hobbies and jobs won’t contain those opportunities. There is a reason only half of the lawyers report being satisfied with their jobs.5 Working long hours doing menial work in defense of causes they don’t believe in is no recipe for finding meaning in work.

See more about the science of gratitude.

Happiness & Religion Research

The Religion Paradox: If Religion Makes People Happy, Why Are So Many Dropping Out?. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology,101(6), 1278-1290. doi:10.1037/a0024402

Williams, E. (2008). Measuring religious social capital: the scale properties of the Williams Religious Social Capital Index (WRSCI) among cathedral congregations. Journal Of Beliefs & Values: Studies In Religion & Education29(3), 327-332. doi:10.1080/13617670802511103

The Science of Gratitude: More Benefits Than Expected


Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 225). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

9 thoughts on “Happiness and Religion- Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral”

  1. I’m impressed with the work you put into this website! Even though you’re not religious you did a great job of analyzing the benefits of joining a religious group. I especially like (and appreciate) your suggestions for finding similar benefits in the secular world. Gratitude, optimism, and self-respect go a long way toward creating a mindset of happiness. Optimism comes from gratitude and self-respect… well it seems like all three qualities are inter-dependent. I tend to have a happy and optimistic attitude most of the time, and I feel a lot of gratitude for life itself.

    Reply
    • Thank you Linda, I appreciate your kind words 🙂

      It’s great isn’t it? Gratitude, optimism, and self-respect are all positively inter-dependent; increase one and generally you increase all three. I’m not naturally happy, optimistic, or grateful – but I’ve found that incorporating small acts of gratitude throughout my day have had a huge impact on all 3 – I find myself more happy and optimistic.

      Just today, I cried for the first time in more than a year. They were tears of gratitude, and wow did they feel good.

      Reply
  2. This post is very timely for me… Though non religious, I’ve been attending church for the past few weeks (for family). It’s been an interesting experience, and I can see why the rates of happiness are so much higher for religious folks. But I’m glad to see there’s still hope for me. 😉

    Reply
    • Yes ma’am, there is still hope for us both!

      My initial line of curiosity developed for the same reason – I was in china for four months and somehow ended up friends with a bunch of highly religious folks (Americans). The dynamics of their relationships was just beautiful, and there were just so nice! I’m still friends with a few of them.

      I hope some day that I have a strong community behind me like that. I think the major differences will be that rather than one large community, it will a set of disparate groups, with only a few common links. Also, they won’t be as awesome. Ah well.

      Reply
  3. Amit: I think you pretty much summed it up at the end. Develop your strengths, social connections, and act in line with your beliefs and values. I think it is all about having a strong faith in what you believe.

    Personally, I have believe in God and whenever I have problems I put my faith in Him. I do not go to Church, but just study on my own and with others.

    Reply
  4. i agree with you
    spirituality and religions can put the person in a better state of mind and help him cope with life problems in a better way, thanks for the post

    Reply
  5. Interesting post Amit, I agree to a certain extent but the times have changed since religion has been the central focus point of communities. There are many community organisations and ways for communities to bond and connect. We are in a new phase of evolution where religion no longer is the focal point of togetherness and trust. It’s time the people who are not religious stood up and admitted their lack of belief too many people depend on the structures of the church or continue to abide by the rituals and routines whether it be through fear or respect for tradition and culture. In my opinion, the church (in my culture in particular) represents too many negative things and I would love for people to have the courage to step outside and admit their true beliefs. When this finally happens human beings can evolve to the next level of spirituality.

    Reply
    • Perhaps you are right. Just because secular institutions have continued to fail in this regard doesn’t mean that they always will. What I refer to is more than just bond and connect – from what I’ve seen through personal experience and here-say is that the level of bonding and connectedness is much higher in religious groups.

      Where I live, there is no lack of numbers – enough people have stood up and admitted their lack of belief. The problem is that the secular institutions we belong to lack the draw, rituals, routines, and power that made the church such a powerfully bonding (but also dividing) institution. The other problem is that there are too many – unlike the church, which is a singular entity, most people belong to many secular institutions. Their focus is divided, which reduces the sense of community. But enough complaining. I hope you are right.

      Reply
  6. Hi and thanks for the rigorous research of this site :).

    I wonder if going to Quaker meetings might be the ‘solution’ for atheists.

    I’ve gone to meetings reasonably consistently and there’s no mention of necessary belief to attend and the silent hour can be used for (empirically beneficial) meditation and acts as a good group for meditation to get you to commit without any discussion of, as you said, ‘the evils of attachment’.

    Despite the traditional Christian links, there are people from all religious backgrounds and a special non-theist group accepted within them. Then there’s 30 minutes or so of chatting for the benefits of socialising and the unique benefits of a spiritual community.

    Maybe not having all the same beliefs like other communities might reduce some of the benefits by comparison, but some kind of shared decency, spiritual practice and community should be enough to help quite a bit and when all it need involve is meditation and socialising, there’s not really any opportunity cost.

    Just anecdotally, I nearly always feel better for going.

    All the best.

    Reply

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