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Religious Belief

Who is happier, a religious believer or a nonbeliever?

New analysis shows that it's not quite so simple. Luke Galen  has found that the convinced non-religious are also quite happy, but people who are uncertain are the ones who are dissatisfied. Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, a social scientist at Harvard, has analyzed data from the World Values Survey and found some more interesting details.

Religion and Science

Uncertainity leads to dissatisfaction

Previous studies have tended to find that religious people are, on average, happier. But simple 'average' levels of happiness hide a lot of detail - convinced non-religious people are quite happy while those who are uncertain about their beliefs are dissatisfied with life.

Religious people are both happier and unhappier.

In other words, they tend to be found at either extremes of the happiness scale. 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.

Kumbha Mela 2009

Religious service-goers tend to be happier.

Teasing apart the data 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 religious doctrine and 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.

This 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.

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.


Religion alleviates the effects of unemployment

This only applies 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.

Religions cause extremes

All this seems to confirm that the religions cause extremes - both high happiness but also high unhappiness. Plus, happiness is mostly linked to social activities. This study seems to explain why atheist countries, like Scandinavia, are amongst the happiest. Atheists are happy when 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.

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2 comments for this post

Saturday December 19, '09 at 05:51 PM


Happiness is a relative thougt. It is bound in the concept of the mind. True religion is beyond the senses and mind and can not be held as a comparison or gauge or term such as "happiness". As long as an individual has doubt (no matter whether athiest or religious) there can be no true fulfillment (happiness). You must move beyond the body and mind to experience "Oneness" God Consciousness, Cosmic Awareness, whatever. As long as there is an object and subject there is no absolute happiness.AND please don't tell me there is no Absolute!!! There is.

Monday December 21, '09 at 07:30 PM


I am happy to see that you read my blog. One of my intentions is to provoke constructive debate, especially about spirituality, which I feel has not been openly discussed in the Yoga community.

Once we entertain a position without doubt, we invite back the Inquisition, El Qaeda and the 'true believers' (whom Eric Hoffer so beautifully dissected in his book by the same title when you and I were growing up).

I must not adequately understand your comments, for I find it difficult to think of you as being so much against doubt. Doubt and open debate guard us from fanaticism, which has proven to be deadly in all its forms, whether religious or political. It took western civilisation about 14 centuries to displace Christian dogmatism with doubt and empiricism. However, the 20th century experienced some of the most tragic and horrific examples of 'true belief'. And today critical inquiry and empiricism remain very much under appreciated and vulnerable.

I expect that you will promptly correct my misunderstanding of your comments.

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