Can religion make you happy? And, if so, how is that happiness experienced by religious people? Those are questions included in the book Social Trends in American Life, which we’ve been exploring since Monday.
Consider your own life: How happy are you, generally speaking? If you are very happy, it could be because of religion, especially if you belong to a congregation and attend religious services on a regular basis. Of course, people who are religiously unaffiliated or atheistic can be very happy, too. But it turns out that religion and happiness are connected.
The religion-happiness link is one of the topics covered in a chapter written by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout—noted experts on religion in American life. Here’s what they found: Religious Americans are happier overall than Americans without a religious affiliation throughout the three decades covered by the General Social Survey (GSS). This includes mainline Protestants, conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Only African-American Protestants were not happier than the unaffiliated, but this changed in the early 2000s with a clear upswing in happiness for this group.
Americans who regularly attended religious services were happier than those who never or rarely attend. The happiest were those who attended services weekly or daily. These patterns hold over the thirty years of the GSS.
Why does religion have these effects? Meaning and belonging is the authors’ answer. Both elements are required. Belief alone is not enough. The authors show that private devotion, such as praying alone at home, doesn’t produce happiness. It’s outside the communal experience. They also looked at whether simply attending services, without a personal belief in religion, produces the happiness effect. But, they found that combination doesn’t work, either. The data indicate that religious belief practiced in a collective setting creates happiness. As the authors put it: “Religion, to be effective, must be social.”
Now, you may be skeptical of these findings. However, the Greeley-Hout chapter seems to parallel another study of religion in American life that also was published this autumn. See a ReadTheSpirit interview with Dr. Matthew Lee, one of the chief researchers in that study. Lee’s team approached this subject using different research tools and asking different questions. But, in the end, Lee’s team found, in their words: Religious Americans tend to feel God’s love and then they want to share that love with others. That’s pretty close to the Greeley-Hout findings.
So, how happy are you?
Is your level of happiness related to religious belief and attendance?
Or, does it come from somewhere else?
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.