This Emotional Life: Why Does Religion Make People Happier?
By Therese J. Borchard
Harvard psychologist and bestselling author Daniel Gilbert has teamed up with Vulcan Productions and the NOVA/WGBH Science Unit to create a multimedia project called This Emotional Life .
This 3-part documentary ends tonight on PBS. Featured in the third episode is Dr. Edward Diener, who has studied happiness across cultures and has pinpointed some universal reasons that people are happier. One is religion. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Diener.
Question: Why does religion seem to make people happier?
Dr. Diener: Many studies find that religious people on average are happier. But since not all religious people are happier, and not all religious beliefs seem to lead to happiness, we have to search for the “active ingredient” in what aspect of religion might increase feelings of well-being. In our book on happiness, my son and I argue that one key ingredient is positive spirituality, feeling emotions such as love, awe, wonder, respect, and gratitude that connect us to others and to things larger than ourselves. That is, spirituality can focus us on larger causes than our own personal welfare, and this can give us purpose and meaning. Also, this broader focus on others and purpose can help us quit worrying so much about ourselves. And it can help us connect to others.
Religion has been associated with happiness for other reasons. For instance, religion often gives people social support and contact. People meet other like-minded people at church, and in many instances can count on those folks when they need help. Another reason that some religions might increase subjective well-being is that they provide optimism for an afterlife. These religions solve the “terror” associated with death by promising a better life after death. Another reason that religion can help happiness is that it provides a moral compass, rules to live by. We need something more than our own hedonism to guide our behavior, and religion can help to provide guidelines to follow in order to have an orderly and moral life, that helps us get along well with others. Finally, religion can provide answers to large questions, such as where did the universe come from, why is there evil, etc.
In our research, we are surprised to find that the happiest nations are often relatively nonreligious, such as Scandinavian societies. This is surprising, because we also find that religious people have more positive feelings in most nations. So it is a puzzle as to why people in wealthier societies are so frequently turning away from religion. It seems from our analyses that people most turn to religion when conditions in their society are tough – poverty, conflict, and so forth. When conditions are good, fewer people in a nation continue to be religious. Even then, the religious individuals report more positive emotions.
Question: What are some other key principles to happiness?
Dr. Diener: There are many, many causes of happiness and happiness, and so we do not subscribe to any single “key” to it. Rather, in our book my son and I write that happiness requires a recipe of ingredients mixed in the right amounts. When a person is depressed, it can be for a number of reasons, and the same is true of happiness. For some, happiness comes primarily from their relationships, and for others they obtain a lot of well-being from the contributions of their work. In other words, there are individual differences in the causes of a person’s happiness and unhappiness, and we must look at the facts in each individual case. At the same time, we can say some things about statistical averages, and the common causes of happiness:
Having supportive relationships is very important. We found that all happy people have them.
Being a supportive person to others is also important. People who help others seem to be better off. Some data show that people who help others a lot are healthier.
Having purpose and meaning in life is important, a devotion to people or goals that are larger than ourselves.
Finding activities in which one can use one’s talents and strengths, including one’s work
We outline more of these in our book: However, please note: We are talking here about what makes people happy, not necessarily the causes of unhappiness. Some things might contribute to both, but there can be separate causes of unhappiness and depression. So it really requires something more than getting rid of unhappiness to be happy.
However, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has argued that perhaps depression can be best alleviated not by getting rid of problems, but instead by focusing on positive goals, optimism, and positive thinking.
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