Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Are people happier in countries where religious practice is stronger?

I have been wondering whether Arthur Brooks’ observation that Americans who regularly attend religious services tend to be substantially happier than those who don’t (see here) also applies to people in other countries.

Some Australian research supports the proposition that those who attend church regularly are happier than those who don't (see here). A search for other studies didn't reveal much, so I have done a little research myself.

If religious observance makes people happy we would expect there to be a higher percentage of happy people in countries with higher religious observance, other things equal. I think the most important “other thing” to control for here is income level. The question I want to consider is whether people in countries with comparable income levels have a higher probability of happiness if they have a higher level of religious observance.

In order to address this question I have used multiple regression to explain the percentage of people who are satisfied with life as a whole in terms of per capita income level and three measures of religious observance: % who attend religious services once a month or more frequently; % who say God is important in their lives; and % who derive comfort and support from religion. As might be expected, these three variables are highly correlated. (Data are for 72 countries for the year 2000 and have been sourced from “Human Beliefs and Values” by Ronald Inglehart et al.)

The regression analysis using each of these measures of religious observance in separate equations suggests that they all have a positive effect on the proportion of people who are satisfied with life in different countries. The results suggest, for example, that an increase in church attendance in Australia of 10 percentage points (from 25% to 35% attending once a month or more) would increase the percentage of people who are satisfied with life by 2 to 3 points, from 77 percent to 79 or 80 percent. (This is not peer-reviewed research , but I will make the detailed regression result available to anyone who wants them and the data available to anyone who wants to replicate the study.)

What are the implications of these results? Should non-believers start going to church in search of happiness? I doubt whether they would find it. Should the government make church attendance compulsory? No Kevin, I don’t think that would be a good idea.

Perhaps the most important implication is that those of us who have developed a secular orientation could gain something useful by trying to understand the pleasure that many religious people obtain from church attendance. The best account of this that I have read so far is by Jonathan Haidt:
For many people, one of the pleasures of going to church is the experience of collective elevation. People step outside of their everyday profane existence ... and come together with a community of like-hearted people who are also hoping to feel a “lift” from stories about Christ, virtuous people in the Bible, saints, or exemplary members of their own community. When this happens people find themselves overflowing with love, but it is not exactly the love that grows out of attachment relationships. That love has a specific object and it turns to pain when the object is gone. This love has no specific object; it is agape. It feels like a love of all humankind, and because humans find it hard to believe that something comes from nothing, it seems natural to attribute the love to Christ, or to the Holy Spirit moving within one’s own heart” (The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006, p 199).

That helps me to understand why about 60 percent of Americans go to church once a month or more.

Fortunately, regular attendance at a Christian church is not a necessary condition to experience this pleasure of elevation. Similar pleasures are offered by other religions. Non-believers can even obtain a similar feeling of elevation through the regular practice of meditation.

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