Field of Science

If religion makes you happy, why are people turning away from it?

Every now and then a study comes along that cuts with laser-like precision into one or two of the murky questions that haunt the sociology of religion. Just such a study has recently been done by Ed Diener, at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and colleagues (earlier this year Diener published another great study on happiness and inequality in the USA).

What Diener et al wanted to know is simply this: why, if religion is supposed to make you happy, are people in the West leaving it in droves? It's a simple and important question, but it's one that's actually really tough to answer - which is why no-one's tried before. They cram an awful lot into this one paper, so I'm only going to give the headline results. They're quite fascinating enough.

They began by confirming that people in difficult social circumstances are indeed more likely to be religious. They showed this was the case by looking at states in the USA, and also by using the massive Gallup World Poll of over 455,000 people. Although similar things have been shown before, their approach was pretty nice because they included things like whether people feel safe at night, or whether they get enough to eat, as well as more standard things like education, income and life expectancy.

So their next question was: what matters most? Is it your own personal circumstances that dictate how religious you are, or is it simply living in a society where a lot of people are doing badly - even if you personally are doing OK?

Again, they found pretty much the same things in both US States and among nations. Although your own personal circumstances do affect your beliefs a little, what's far more important is the society you live in. In difficult societies everyone - rich and poor alike - are more religious. That's reminiscent of a study I blogged a couple of weeks ago, showing that the inequality actually increases the religiosity of the rich.

But does religion actually make people happier? Well, on average it does. After controlling for circumstances, religious people have better 'well-being' (covering positive and negative feelings, and overall life evaluation). But dig a little, and the picture is more complicated.

Because it turns out that religion only improves well-being in tough societies - places like Mississippi or Alabama in the USA,or Egypt and Bangladesh in a global scale.

You can get a feel for this in the figure below. Take the panel on the left. This shows how people rated their positive emotions. The two bars furthest left shows how religious (blue) and non-religious (green) rated their positive emotions in the best 25% of nations - places like Sweden, Japan and France. You can see that religion has no effect in these well-off nations. The next pair of columns show the result for the bottom 25% of nations. Here you can see that the religious have more positive emotions.

Looking at negative emotions, you can see that in the best nations, the non-religious actually have fewer negative emotions than the religious! In worse nations, the non-religious have more negative emotions.

It also matters whether you live in a religious country. In highly religious countries, the non-religious tend to be unhappy. But in least religious countries, the non-religious actually have fewer negative emotions than the religious!

Diener and co. also went on to examine why people in poor societies benefit from religion. Using a sophisticated model that took into account both their personal and societal circumstances, they were able to show that these people felt they had more social support and more respect.

In good societies, there was no advantage to being religious - both religious and non-religious reported feeling respected and having high levels of social support, and as a result both had high levels of happiness and well-being.

They also showed that all religions seemed to be pretty much alike. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all had a similar relationship with happiness and well being - suggesting that religion, at least in this respect, is a true universal.

So, to sum all this up.  Religion doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. In countries where there are relatively few religious people, and in which living conditions are generally good, religion doesn't improve well being and religious people may actually be less happy.

And what makes people religious is not their direct experience, but rather the society that they live in. As a result, societies tend to be relatively homogeneous when it comes to religion. Some societies (and these tend to be the tough ones) are religious, and if you're not religious then you will be unhappy.

Some societies (and these tend to be the better places to live) are not religious, and there is no happiness advantage to being religious. As a result, people don't bother with it.

And this I think really puts a great perspective on this old question. Now the next question is: what does this all mean for those theorists who like to tell us that religion is innate to the human condition?

Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0024402

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


  1. But Tom, I live in a tough, religious society and am non-religious; thus, I am supposed to be unhappy but I'm not. Does this mean I am an outlier?!

    Slightly less tongue in cheek, my question revolves around the subtleties of "leaving" or "abandoning" religion. Just because people do not identify a religious preference on a survey, or state they have "no affiliation" or "no affiliation," this does not mean they are not religious.

    Shoot me an email and I will send you a bunch of Rodney Stark articles that I have been meaning to send you in any event. Stark is incisive for the sociology of religion and this is putting things mildly.


  2. You said, "They also showed that all religions seemed to be pretty much alike. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all had a similar relationship with happiness and well being - suggesting that religion, at least in this respect, is a true universal."

    Since these religions have radically different theologies and ways of organizing the mind, it seems that a certain 'belongingness' may play a role, and not just religion. I wonder if large social groups like hunting clubs, bridge clubs, Lions Club and such could substitute in fullfilling this happiness pacifier in unstable societies whereas in socially secure nations, a life of TV or casual relationships (without group membership ) is equally satisfying?

    Maybe it is tribal-group membership that matters in insecure societies.

  3. Brilliant article, btw -- very helpful. Thank you.

    Last question:
    You said, "Now the next question is: what does this all mean for those theorists who like to tell us that religion is innate to the human condition?" [I wish blogger had blockquote tags! :-( ]

    This article seems to say that religion [though it may be tribal grouping -- see prev question] is "innate" in that it is a "universal" (your words) solution generated by the human mind to increase happiness in unstable societies. The happiness is the brain's reward to the organism to establish a presumably adaptive response -- bonding with others when safety is at stake.

    So, just as "fear-flight" response is "innate" in danger situations, so "insecure-bond (by whatever means)" is the innate mechanism of religion.

    No? Or did you mean something deeper?

  4. Excellent, thought provoking article.

    I want to add that sociology is, in general, much harder to do well than people tend to assume. (See Duncan Watts, "Everything is Obvious: once you know the answer" for a great recent take on what it takes to do good sociology).

    The sociology of religion is certainly no exception.

    For example, our temptation to draw facile inferences between theories about large groups, theories about small groups ("tribes"), and theories about individuals is very strong. Also, our related temptation to think we can reason our way through areas where we lack domain expertise is also very strong.

    The trouble is that our intuitions as observers are not equally good across these different kinds of objects of study, and our expertise varies across the different domains required, in ways that we don't immediately recognize.

    A great example is the prolific sociologist Rodney Stark, mentioned by Cris above, who while I freely agree has contributed mightily to the study of religion in various ways, also thinks natural selection is "implausible" as a theory of the origin of species.

    2004: Fact, Fable, and Darwin by Rodney Stark

    Personally, I take that as a pretty strong piece of evidence specifically that he is well out of his element, and relying on social proof rather than domain expertise, when he talks specifically about biology, and biology is one of our most fundamental lenses for studying human beings.

    This sort of hidden interdisciplinary perspective bias (which we all have to deal with, not just Rodney by any means) is part of what makes explanations of religion so problematic I think.

  5. Cards on the Table

    The wiki article makes it clear that Stark (Rodney, not commentor Todd -- that was confusing) is a Chrisitian. One who thinks natural selection is implausible. <00>

    Chris, are you also a Christian who is getting a PhD in anthropology?

  6. Actually, I'm not a fan of what I've read of Stark's work. I've tackled a couple of his pieces previously on the blog (here and also <a href=">this one</a> on religion and risk taking. But I'm always up for reading more - so I'll drop you a line Cris so you can send me them.

    Sabio - the thing that struck me (and what was in my mind when I wrote the last line) was that both religion and non-religion are 'innate'. If religion is natural, then so is non-religion. Some people, of course, seem to be pretty strongly disposed one way or the other, but for the majority it's not inheritance but environment that decides it.

    Todd, that looks like a great book. Another one for the reading list :) Sociology is the sort of science where it's pretty easy to delude yourself, but things are getting better, I think. If only because data and statistical models are getting better (although that hasn't helped economists much, that's for sure!).

  7. Sabio, I don't know if it's relevant but I don't think Rodney considers himself a Christian, I think he considers himeself an agnostic. He does come from a Christian background and seems to have sympathy (and perhaps even envy) for Christian beliefs however so I can see where that impression would come from.

    Tom, I am not a fan of rational choice theory, it was in my mind when I brought up the difficulty of doing good sociology. I think it applies an indivdual kind of explanation to groups where it probably doesn't apply. However I appreciate good scholarship because it teaches us by the things we get wrong based on it as much as by the things we get right based on it. Poor scholarship is hard to learn much from whether right or wrong conclusions are drawn. I consider Rodney a good scholar. I just think his theory is the wrong one for some of the things he tries to apply it to, partly perhaps because he ignores biology, but that's just my own perspective.

  8. "But does religion actually make people happier? Well, on average it does."
    When we actually have a reliable way of measuring happiness, studies like this may have some value. Until then I consider this to be worthless piffle.

  9. Huh. I didn't realize we had a reliable way of measuring the worth of piffle either.

  10. I don't know about the rest of you, but my religious beliefs are dictated by what I think to be true, rather than by what would make me happiest.

    I would be very, very happy if there existed a powerful being who wanted to give me immortality in exchange for simply believing in him. It would make me much happer than, say, believing that I will one day cease to exist as a conscious being and experience eternal oblivion.

    And yet I believe the latter, not the former, because it's what I think is true.

  11. Minor clarification. They are leaving in flocks, not droves.

  12. "I don't know about the rest of you, but my religious beliefs are dictated by what I think to be true, rather than by what would make me happiest."

    Could very well be. I'm not entirely convinced that each of us is automatically an accurate judge of how and why our explicitly stated beliefs take the form they do. But I don't doubt for a moment that people usually consider their religious beliefs to be true rather than being conveniences or the result of some sort of pressure or coercion or pleasant fictions.

    That's just saying that most of us aren't conscious or deliberate hypocrites, isn't it?

    I suspect, on the other hand, that virtually all of us are unaware or inadvertent hypocrites in the sense that our brain probably doesn't just generate a system of logically consistent claims, there are likely all sorts of different ways of slicing what we know and what we think going on at the same time in a human brain. People often say they believe things that upon closer examination turn out to be inconsistent with each other.

    The theory of rational choice doesn't even work entirely adequately for a single individual for all things. Although it does well enough for some things I think.

    kind regards,


  13. I agree. There's plenty of evidence that people's 'rational' decisions can be influenced in all sorts of subtle ways. And the evidence in this study and others does show that religious beliefs and attitudes can be influenced by circumstances - it's not simply a case of logical deduction (although that clearly is important too).

  14. This study adds to my confidence that religion is a sham. In addition to the extraordinary claims that religions make about reality, their adherents also make extraordinary claims about the benefits of belonging. And yet, study and study of the effect of believing and/or belonging to a religious group shows very little correlation between that and well-being or moral behavior. That is, when you read their scriptures, you would reasonably expect that those who adhere to them would stand out from the rest of society in an obviously positive way, and yet they don't. I'm sure there are billions of believers who would assure any interviewer of the benefit of their faith, and yet demographic studies show that those believers would be just as happy and as moral with any other religion or with a secular life philosophy instead.

  15. I'd like to consider the statement "people in the West are leaving it in droves", and suggest that this may not be the case at all. I think that people in the West are adopting new religions that are a better fit for affluent societies. They are leaving an old religion in droves simply to flock to a new one. New-age, positive thinking and other forms of modern, western spirituality, have been considered religions by sociologists for quite some time. Instead of offering comfort in times of hardship, they offer "meaning" in times of "emptiness".

    The small differences in reported happiness among the religious and non religious in Western societies can simply be the result of labeling a religious population as nonreligious. The study might paint the wrong picture simply for misunderstanding what religion is.

  16. "Researchers find," say the authors of this paper, "that religious people, on average, report higher subjective well-being."

    The problem with this is that religious people are told to report higher subjective well-being. One of the most important tenets of religion belief is that it makes you feel better. That's one of the things that religious people believe, so that's what they report.

    Until this fact is understood, "piffle" will a damned good summary of almost all papers in the sociology of religion.


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