Happiness and Religion- Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral

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.


  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.

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