This is a guest post by Matthew Facciani. He is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of South Carolina.
Are religious people more happy than non-religious people? You may have heard other people provide an opinion about this or perhaps you have an opinion yourself. Fortunately, the scientific method can address such questions in an objective way. Science has found some conflicting results regarding happiness and religious belief. Some research has found that religion is tied to greater well-being (Diener & Seligman, 2002, Lim & Putman, 2010). Yet, other research has found that those who are religious and have a malevolent view of God tend to report lower self-esteem, psychological coping, and health resiliency (Benson & Spilka, 1973, Pargament & Hahn, 1986). To address these discrepancies, Shariff & Aknin (2014) recently published a new study involving three experiments to analyze religious belief. They measured how believing in Heaven and Hell affects subjective well-being and happiness.
The Recent Findings
The first study from Shariff & Aknin (2014) measured the relationship between Heaven and Hell belief and subjective well-being at the cross-national level. To do this, the researchers compared differences in subjective well-being between 63 countries against their national rates of Heaven and Hell beliefs from the 2005–2009 Gallup World Poll. Importantly, the researchers controlled for macroeconomic (i.e. wealth inequality), religious (i.e. belief in god), and social factors (i.e. civil liberties). Subjective well-being was measured using the constructs of daily affect and life satisfaction rank.
Daily affect is comprised of a series of questions such as regarding everyday happiness such as “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” whereas life satisfaction rank probes overall life satisfaction by asking questions like “How happy are you with your life as a whole these days?” Shariff & Aknin (2014) found that cross-nationally belief in heaven resulted in a significant positive correlation with both daily affect and overall life satisfaction. Conversely, a belief in Hell resulted in a significant negative correlation with both daily affect and overall life satisfaction. These results, though striking, came with limitations of a small sample size of countries and a lack of religious variation. Most countries in this first study were predominantly Islamic or Christian so the researchers could not examine whether the observed relationships between Heaven and Hell beliefs are present in other religions. Thus, Shariff & Aknin (2014) conducted a follow up large scale correlational study to address these limitations.
In the second study, Shariff & Aknin (2014) used the same questions to measure the association between daily affect and life satisfaction with Heaven/Hell belief and controlled for the same variables. Unlike the previous study, this study used individual responses instead of aggregating data into a national average. The same survey questions were used, but a random sample was taken of individual responses from people of various religious backgrounds. The results of this experiment were consistent with the previous study. Belief in Hell resulted in a negative correlation with daily affect and life satisfaction. Belief in Heaven was significantly positive correlated with daily affect and life satisfaction. Importantly, further analysis revealed that there was a non-significant interaction between the emotional correlates and different kinds of religion. Thus, regardless of religion, believing in the concept of Hell made people less happy. Both of these correlational studies provides evidence for how believing in Hell leads to unhappiness. However, these studies are only correlational so Shariff & Aknin (2014) completed a final study which attempted to find a causal link between Hell and unhappiness.
A large sample of American subjects (n = 422) participated in this last study by Shariff & Aknin (2014). Only 57% of this sample reported being religious. Of those who were religious, 82% were Christian. In this study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, Hell, Heaven, and the control condition. In the Hell condition, participants wrote 100-200 words about their conception of Hell which included its purpose and description. In the Heaven condition, the same instructions were presented, except the participant was asked to write about Heaven. In the control condition (aimed to be neutral), participants wrote about what they did yesterday. After the participants completing writing, they were asked to rate the extent they were experiencing emotions of happiness, sadness, guilt, security, shame, fear, and calmness. The results from this final study provided causal evidence that thinking about Hell produces unhappiness. Participants who wrote about Hell reported significant less happiness and more sadness than those who wrote about Heaven. Those who wrote about Hell also reported more fear than those who wrote about Heaven or wrote about what they did yesterday. Those who wrote about Heaven did not report significantly higher positive emotions than those in the control group. In the control group, religious participants reported higher levels of happiness compared to the non-religious. This supports previous research that religious tend to have greater well being than non-religious (Diener & Seligman, 2002, Lim & Putman, 2010). Finally, regardless of whether the participant was religious or not, writing about Hell significantly decreased the participant’s happiness ratings.
Conclusions and Implications of Results
These studies by Shariff & Aknin (2014) provide compelling evidence that the belief in Hell is associated with unhappiness. This could explain some of the conflicting research about happiness and religious belief as the belief in Hell seems to play a large role. Shariff & Aknin (2014) found that Hell leads to unhappiness with the aggregate of cross-national survey data, individual responses of survey data, and even by a priming experiment. Interestingly, belief in Hell was attributed to unhappiness regardless of what religion the participant adhered to and even thinking about Hell produced negative emotions in the non-religious. These findings provide greater nuance to the claim that religious belief is tied to greater well-being and provokes interesting questions of the trade-off of having religious belief from a cultural evolutionary perspective. Different societal circumstances could shift the balance of such a tradeoff. For instance, in a society where rule following is organized by secular institutions, supernatural punishment (i.e. Hell), may provide less value (Laurin et al, 2012). Thus, in these societies, it may be more adaptive for religiosity to adhere to a more benevolent tone. This study reveals that while certain aspects of religiosity can indeed produce greater well-being, other aspects can lead to significant unhappiness.
The findings of this new study might be intuitive for some, but I feel as though it provides a great new direction for studying religious belief. Religion is complex and multifaceted. People may identify as the same religion, but may believe for vastly different reasons. Additionally, those who adhere to the same religion may feel differently about different aspects of their same religion. Thus, while studying religion scientifically, it is important to identify specific underlying themes within religious belief. By taking a more nuanced approach like Shariff & Aknin (2014) did, scientists can avoid over generalizing religious belief. Beyond scientific advancement, this study offers rather practical implications as well. Believing in Hell makes people unhappy which does not seem to be advantageous if rule following is enforced by secular institutions. These secular institutions could be the government, but they could also be secular belief systems such as humanism. According to the American Humanist Association, “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity”or, in other words, being good for goodness’ sake. As our society becomes more egalitarian and more technologically advanced, emotionally harmful ideas such as Hell may not have much practical use as we progress to a happier and more friendly world.
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Laurin K, Shariff AF, Henrich J, Kay AC (2012). Outsourcing punishment to God: Beliefs in divine control reduce earthly punishment. Pro R Soc Lond B Biol Science. 279: 3272–3281
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Pargament KI, & Hahn J (1986).God and the just world: Causal and coping attributions to God in health situations. J Sci Study Relig. 25: 193–207.
Shariff A, & Aknin, L (2014). The Emotional Toll of Hell: Cross-National and Experimental Evidence for the Negative Well-Being Effects of Hell Beliefs. PloS ONE, 9(1): e85251.