Take any given country, and religious people tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives than the non-religious. Quite why this is so is a matter of debate, but there’s increasing evidence that part of the explanation is that happiness stems from believing yourself to be ‘normal’ – that you fit in with your community.
Olga Stavrova, at the University of Cologne in Germany, is an expert on how social norms affect individual happiness. For example, she’s recently shown that unmarried couples are less happy than married couples only in those countries where cohabitation is disapproved of (thus showing that there isn’t anything intrinsic to marriage that leads to happiness).
Now, along with colleagues, she’s taken a look at how attitudes to the non-religious affect their happiness and life satisfaction (these are two closely related measures – but happiness tends to reflect how you feel right now, whereas life satisfaction reflects longer-term feelings).
Using data from the World Values Survey, Stavrova assessed how desirable it was to be religious in each country. She based this on three factors: proportion of the population who were religious, the proportion that thought that non-religious politicians were unfit for public service, and the proportion that thought that children should be encouraged to learn a religious faith at home.
You can see the results in the first graphic. In countries where there is a strong religious social norm (solid line), there’s a strong relationship between and individual’s religious belief and their life satisfaction.
In countries with a weak religious social norm, the relationship is still there – but it’s much weaker (dashed line). (You’ll also see in this figure that countries with a weak religious social norm also tend to have higher life satisfaction for all people, religious or not – but that’s a different story!)
But is this because of active prejudice – or is there something else going on? To answer this, Stavrova turned to the European Social Survey.
The questions in this survey include several that address social inclusion, asking respondents whether they feel that others treat them with respect, whether they feel that they are treated fairly, and whether they feel they get recognition for the things that they do.
Overall, she found that religion was linked to social recognition, and that this did explain some of the happiness benefit to being religious (about 17% of the effect on happiness and 14% of the effect on life satisfaction was due to social recognition.
However, that varied a lot by country. In the graphic, you can see how religion relates to happiness in each country (ranging from the least religious countries on the left, to the most religious on the right), split out into three factors.
The top portion of the bar (light blue) shows the direct effect – in every country, religious people tend to be intrinsically happier, although this effect is larger in the more religious countries.
The bottom portion of the bar (dark blue) shows the indirect effect. Again, in almost every country, being religious leads to more social recognition, in turn leading to more happiness. This effect is much stronger in the more religious countries.
The one exception is the least religious country, East Germany. Here, being religious actually leads to social disapproval – it’s the one country where you could argue that there is a ‘war on religion’!
This research extends some earlier work which also found that religion only makes people happier if they are living in a country where religious people predominate. And there was another paper earlier this year which found that religious people have higher self esteem – but again only in countries that are highly religious.
These new data fit in nicely with those findings, and also suggest that the non-religious suffer ill effects from social exclusion in religious countries.
And the stress of that might explain why the brains of the non-religious seem to age and atrophy quicker!
Olga Stavrova, Detlef Fetchenhauer, & Thomas Schlösser (2012). Why are religious people happy? The effect of the social norm of religiosity across countries Social Science Research DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.07.002