Psychology has thrown up some interesting conclusions over the years. Firstly, we have research to suggest ignorance or lack of intelligence is bliss. Then we have the claim that religious people are happier.
Using logic, we can perhaps claim that religious people may be happier, but that’s because they are more ignorant. He heh!
But can we say this?
Research on intelligence and knowledge and how it relates to happiness has shown a number of different outcomes. As the BBC reports:
The first steps to answering these questions were taken almost a century ago, at the height of the American Jazz Age. At the time, the new-fangled IQ test was gaining traction, after proving itself in World War One recruitment centres, and in 1926, psychologist Lewis Terman decided to use it to identify and study a group of gifted children. Combing California’s schools for the creme de la creme, he selected 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more – 80 of whom had IQs above 170. Together, they became known as the “Termites”, and the highs and lows of their lives are still being studied to this day.
As you might expect, many of the Termites did achieve wealth and fame – most notably Jess Oppenheimer, the writer of the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. Indeed, by the time his series aired on CBS, the Termites’ average salary was twice that of the average white-collar job. But not all the group met Terman’s expectations – there were many who pursued more “humble” professions such as police officers, seafarers, and typists. For this reason, Terman concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated”. Nor did their smarts endow personal happiness. Over the course of their lives, levels of divorce, alcoholism and suicide were about the same as the national average.
As the Termites enter their dotage, the moral of their story – that intelligence does not equate to a better life – has been told again and again. At best, a great intellect makes no differences to your life satisfaction; at worst, it can actually mean you are less fulfilled.
That’s not to say that everyone with a high IQ is a tortured genius, as popular culture might suggest – but it is nevertheless puzzling. Why don’t the benefits of sharper intelligence pay off in the long term?…
Constant worrying may, in fact, be a sign of intelligence – but not in the way these armchair philosophers had imagined. Interviewing students on campus about various topics of discussion, Alexander Penney at MacEwan University in Canada found that those with the higher IQ did indeed feel more anxiety throughout the day. Interestingly, most worries were mundane, day-to-day concerns, though; the high-IQ students were far more likely to be replaying an awkward conversation, than asking the “big questions”. “It’s not that their worries were more profound, but they are just worrying more often about more things,” says Penney. “If something negative happened, they thought about it more.”
There is research to suggest that some measures of intelligence predict the stability of happiness:
It turns out that IQ—even assessed in childhood—does predict the emotional ups and downs a person will have over the course of her life. People who were below average in intelligence experienced significantly more variability in their life satisfaction than did those who were above average. Importantly, this was not due to differences in education, income, or job, although it was, in part, due to differences in health.
The question naturally boils down to one of causality – is it education or knowledge or intelligence that affects happiness, or what those things bring about?
“When looking at the data we saw that people with a lower IQ were less likely to be happier because of higher levels of socio-economic disadvantage such as lower income.
They are also less likely to be happy because they need more help with skills of daily living, have poorer health and report more symptoms of psychological distress.”
But, as ever, things are complicated:
They found further evidence for the apparent benefits of higher intelligence for life satisfaction by factoring in the influence of “job complexity” (greater complexity meaning a job with more variety, skill demands and autonomy) and job income, two factors that are themselves correlated with greater happiness. This showed that higher intelligence has indirect links with greater happiness because more intelligent people tend to earn more, but especially because they tend to have more complex jobs, which presumably are more rewarding.
According to 38 studies involving nearly 30,000 participants, higher intelligence also had indirect links with job satisfaction by virtue of the fact that it correlated with job complexity and income. But this is psychology, so of course there’s a twist that somewhat supports the folk wisdom about intelligent people rarely being happy. When the researchers held job complexity and income constant in their analysis, they found that higher intelligence actually correlated with less job satisfaction. Put differently, if you imagine a range of people at a given level of job complexity and income, those with higher intelligence will tend to be less happy with their jobs. This makes intuitive sense if you consider that smarter people will be more likely than others to experience boredom and frustration at jobs that are not challenging enough.
The nature of happiness is perhaps difficult to nail down, let alone intelligence, knowledge or education.
Now let’s look at education and religion.
The claims are that religious people are happier. However, the devil is in the detail. It turns out that people with more certainty in their beliefs are happy. So the agnostic or the fence sitter figures further down the happiness scale, and the fervent evangelical or atheist further up. As Luke Galen found:
So what does certainty and uncertainty about God mean day to day? While many studies find a correlation between religious belief and happiness, Galen found something quite different.
His survey of CFI International, which includes some believers, found those who were certain God does or does not exist reported equally high life satisfaction and emotional stability. The comparison of the local CFI and church members also showed certainty either way correlates with greater happiness and less anxiety.
Translation please? “If God loves me, everything’s going to be OK,” Galen explains. “If you’re a stone-cold atheist, you’re not worried about going to hell.”
And why the rise of the non-religious? Galen speculates it’s partly a reaction against the Religious Right and terrorism, and partly a sign of greater social acceptance.
“There’s less of a stigma against being non-religious now, especially among young people,” says Galen. “It’s a diversity thing.”
Again, though, there are third elements that find themselves causally important in bringing about happiness. The sorts of things that religious people (in America) do, such as attend church services and surround themselves with social networks of like-minded supportiuve people, are the things that bring about that happiness. It is why people in the least religious countries of the world are just as happy, if not happier. They are the norm there, with their own social networks of people around them.
So religion (or religious content) does not make people happier – social things do.
Indeed, recently, “Religiosity and happiness: A comparison of the happiness levels between the religious and the nonreligious” found no difference in happiness between the religious and nonreligious:
Previous studies have identified a positive link between religiosity and happiness. However, this link is contentious as some studies have found no association. The present study compared the happiness levels of the religious and the nonreligious using two separate measures of happiness, the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, and the Subjective Happiness Scale. One hundred and twenty four people (men = 43, women = 81), aged between 18 and 73 years (M = 42.28, SD = 12.18), participated in the study by completing an online survey. There were 13 participants in the „believe in God‟ group, 53 participants in the „believe in God and participate in religion group, 17 participants in the „agnostic‟ group, and 41 participants in the „atheist‟ group. The results found there was no difference in happiness levels between any of the groups for both measures of happiness. These findings suggest the religious are not happier than the nonreligious. Further studies are needed to compare the happiness levels of the religious and nonreligious with a variety of samples.
Essentially, as amusing as the initial connection shown in the opening sentences may be, people are really happier because they have a number of variables acting upon them, from social security, health and wellbeing, as well as education that allows them to get fulfilling jobs. And any number of other variables. It’s confusing. As ever, controlling for variables is the order of the day. Religious content almost certainly does not affect happiness.
In my next post, I will look at religiosity and intelligence.