Discussing the power of prayer in class made me wonder what other studies had been done attempting to measure things regarding faith and religion. As it would turn out, there’s no shortage of scientific interest on it. One topic where many studies had been done was on whether religiousness had any correlation with the happiness of a person.
Several studies confirmed that, yes, on the face of it, religious people were in fact happier than their secular counterparts. However, these studies also looked at the mechanism of this happiness and many concluded the mechanism involved was not having faith in and of itself. The first study that I stumbled across tracked nearly ten thousand European adults ages fifty and older. It controlled for a litany of confounding variables and it found that participation in a religious organization did in fact decrease depression. This positive effect of participation in a religious institution was shown to be even greater than other forms of social participation, such as volunteer work, political participation, and even playing sports. In an analysis of that study, psychologist, Jennifer Harstein, noted that the fact religion is a form of social participation that is year-round, and therefore may be able to provide more sustained happiness than seasonal sports or volunteer opportunities that aren’t permanent.
Another study mentioned in Psychology Today backed up Harstein’s comments. Traditionally many areas in the world and even in the United States have mandated that businesses close on the Sabbath of the religion most prominent in that area. As time has gone on, many areas have taken those laws off the books. Researchers in this study looked at how the repeal of these laws affected happiness in those areas. They concluded that despite the level of faith in the population remaining the same, church attendance and level of happiness decreased significantly, especially among women. Whatever it was that these women were doing on Sundays outside of church clearly was not as fulfilling as attending morning mass.
The largest of all the studies that I found was a Pew survey of over 150 countries that looked at correlation between religiousness and happiness. It showed the same that in general those who were religious were happier than nonreligious people. This was especially true in countries where religion is extremely prominent and where poverty is a severe problem. Again the mechanism was said to be due to the social support that is so easy to come by for one who is active in a church, synagogue, or a mosque. However, an interesting note in the study showed that richer and less religious countries were outliers, and religion did not provide more happiness and was sometimes actually correlated with more internal despair than nonreligious people in those secular countries. One possible mechanism for this observation is that in countries without proliferation of religion, people are able to gain the same kind of social fulfillment from other activities as those involved in religion would in other places. Another contributor to that could be the fact individuals in these rich and secular countries don’t need the social network of a church, mosque, or synagogue to survive the way many in poor countries do; they can afford all their needs on their own so their money is literally buying them happiness. Princeton researchers did find that up to a yearly income of $75,000, money has a direct correlational relationship with level of happiness, likely because that is a level at which one can easily provide for all his or her needs and have disposable income left over.
So, should you go out and join the Sunday choir if you’re ever feeling down? According to science, it is unlikely to hurt. But it won’t be
the faith in and of itself that’s making you happy, it will be the relationships you cultivate with others that buoys your spirits.