One of the founding principles of the United States is that every citizen has the right to the pursuit of happiness. Although the science of happiness has emerged in recent years as a more legitimate psychological field, the idea of happiness itself remains both intangible and different for everyone. Some choose to pursue happiness in the form of material wealth, while others seek the same feeling through physical or emotional relationships. Out of all the possible ways to find happiness, another basic American freedom may offer the most reliable route: Religion, it turns out, consistently makes people happy in a wide variety of ways.
According to Amherst College psychology professor Catherine Sanderson, religious beliefs “give people a sense of meaning” as well as “a sense of well being or comfort.” As the Washington Post writes of Sanders' research, “people who have religious or spiritual beliefs are happier than those who don’t, no matter what their beliefs.” Sanders credits this happiness to the support group that organized religion provides as well as belief that things happen for a reason and that an afterlife awaits.
Sanders' claim that non-religious people are fundamentally less happy is a bold one, but it's backed by some scientific research. A study by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture found that 45 percent of those who attend religious services on a weekly basis listed themselves as “very happy.” Only 28 percent of non-religious respondents who never attend religious services described themselves in the same way. Again, this study credited religion’s social support system as the reason for respondents’ happiness.
A study conducted by Paris School of Economics Professor Andrew Clark and the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research’s Dr. Orsolya Lelkes found that religion helps serve as a “buffer” for those facing difficult periods in life such as unemployment. “We originally started the research to work out why some European countries had more generous unemployment benefits than others, but our analysis suggested that religious people suffered less psychological harm from unemployment than the non-religious,” said Clark to the BBC. “They had higher levels of life satisfaction.”
Despite multiple studies supporting a link between religion and happiness, the concept of happiness itself is still too difficult to pin down. National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson told the BBC that religion itself cannot solve people’s displeasures in life. “Non-believers can’t just turn on a faith in order to be happy. If you find religious claims incredible, then you won’t believe them, whatever the supposed rewards in terms of personal fulfillment,” Sanderson said, “Happiness is an elusive concept, anyway — I find listening to classical music blissful and watching football repulsive. Other people feel exactly the opposite. In the end, it comes down to the individual and, to an extent, their genetic predispositions.” Religion only makes people happy if they truly believe in the doctrine. So, even though religion is a reliable route to happiness, it's not a solution for unhappy non-believers.
There are also other statistical studies that somewhat disprove the connection between religion and happiness. Mississippi, for instance, is ranked on a Gallup poll as the nation’s most religious state, with 61 percent of its population describing themselves as “very religious.” Another Gallup poll, however, lists Mississippi as the eighth most unhappy state. Utah, a close second with 60 percent of its population claiming to be “very religious,” is listed as the fourth happiest state. Hawaii, one of the least religious states with 32 percent “very religious” residents, ranked first on the list of happiest states. These inconsistencies suggest that other factors — wealth, location, climate, etc. — have a higher impact on citizens’ well-being than religion alone.
There are numerous benefits that accompany religious faith. Belief in God and an afterlife provide a level of comfort that makes navigating daily life much less difficult. Having a social support group and a community of like-minded individuals on which to rely is similarly comforting. Yet the inconsistencies in studies of happiness, as well as the intangible and changing nature of happiness itself, prevent scholars from establishing a direct correlation between the two. Religion may provide one of the easiest ways to achieve happiness, but every individual has the right to pursue other methods of reaching the same emotional state.