Field of Science

Happy worshippers, unhappy believers

Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, a social scientist at Harvard, has been looking at religion and happiness around the world. What he's found is really quite remarkable.

First, some background. Previous studies, mostly done in religious countries like the USA, have tended to find that religious people are, on average, happier (in fact, what's usually measured is 'life satisfaction', since happiness is difficult to compare across cultures).

But simple 'average' levels of happiness obscure a lot of detail. Earlier this year, Luke Galen showed that, even in the USA, convinced non-religious people tend to be quite happy. It's the people who are uncertain about their beliefs who are dissatisfied with life.

Okulicz-Kozaryn has used some fairly sophisticated tools to analyse data from the World Values Survey. Here's the key things that he's found.

Religious people are both happier and unhappier. In other words, they tend to be found at either extremes of the happiness scale.

You can get a feel from this from the graphs shown here. A higher percentage of religious people say that they are extremely happy, compared with convinced atheists. But a higher percentage also say that they're extremely unhappy. Atheists are more likely to report being somewhere in-between.

Religious service-goers tend to be happier.
Teasing apart the data in more detail in a multilevel analysis that takes into account all sorts of national-level factors (wealth, democracy, corruption etc) and individual-level factors (personal income, health, education, number of friends, recreational activities, etc) shows that people who go to religious services and belong to religious organisations are happier.

Non-believers tend to be happier. In the same analysis, people who believe in god are much less happy. In other words, the happiest people are those who take part in the social side of religion but don't take all the god stuff too seriously.

The effect depends on how religious the country is. The more religious on average the country is, the happier believers are. In countries that are not very religious, non-believers are happier than believers.

Now this is a very important finding. It suggests that the reason non-believers are generally found to be less happy is because the studies have usually been done in countries where they are the minority.

This might be down to social desirability. In other words, being among like-minded people makes you happier. Also, it might simply be that people who want to fit in are happier. In religious countries, these kinds of people are religious. In non-religious countries, they're non-religious.

Lastly, religion alleviates the effects of unemployment, but only in rich countries. Okulicz-Kozaryn showed that being unemployed makes you unhappy, and that this effect is stronger in rich countries compared with poor ones. Unemployed people who are religious are happier than the non-religious unemployed, but only in rich countries.

He speculates that there is greater social stigma to unemployment in rich countries, and that religion alleviates the misery that this causes.

All in all, some fascinating stuff. It confirms that the religions causes extremes - both high happiness but also high unhappiness. Plus, happiness is mostly linked to social activities.

Most importantly, this study explains the conundrum of why atheist countries, like those in Scandinavia, consistently rank among the happiest. Atheists are happy among like-minded people, and the societies in which they predominate are also rich in the other factors that make people happy - freedom, justice, and equality.

Okulicz-Kozaryn, A. (2009). Religiosity and life satisfaction across nations Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/13674670903273801

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I suppose this partially vindicates those who go in for "Humanist Church"es and stuff like that.

    I'd love to know which way the causality swings in the attends-services/life-satisfaction correlation. At first blush, it seems the more plausible explanation is that the richer social network confers advantages.

    On the other hand, when I think of my own personal experience, I have to wonder... Thinking we would like to participate in some kind of inclusive church-like community, my wife and I (atheists both) attended a UU meeting a few months ago. I generally agreed with all of the sentiments expressed, and felt the sermon was pretty good, if a bit bland. There were a few pseudo-religious tidbits, mostly in the hymns, that bugged me, but mostly I just found the music annoying and the whole affair to be dreadfully boring and uncomfortable.

    On the same note, I also think about my eventual deconversion from being raised Mormon, and I can't deny that a major initial impetus for my leaving the Mormon church was that I just plain didn't like the people and didn't like being there. It is hard to say how much of that was philosophical (as early as 13, I was realizing that even pondering sticky theological questions was frowned upon, which is pretty incompatible with a naturally curious personality) and how much was just purely aesthetic.

    So would I be happier if I could finally find the right church-esque community to be a part of? Or does the causality swing the other way, and I just can't stand church-esque gatherings because I'm a miserable anti-social curmudgeon?

    So you see I have a vested interest in knowing which way the causality swings...

  2. As a Christian I was taught that you can't be happy without Jesus. Conversely, to have Jesus was to be happy. It therefore became important for me to be happy, to convince myself that I was, because if I wasn't maybe that meant I didn't have Jesus. Consequently, if one of these researchers had asked me about my level of happiness, I would have responded that it was high--and that regardless of how happy I really was.


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