Why Religious Beliefs Make People Happier

The things we tend to believe will make us happy don’t actually heighten our sense of well being. But religion does.

I keep thinking that if only I had a private plane, I would be really happy. Seriously. I can’t think of any greater luxury. You decide when you want to go. Your chauffeur pulls up to the plane on the tarmac, the stewards and pilots welcome you and carry your bags in. You settle into deep, wide leather seats. You are served anything you want when you want it. If the weather is really bad, you can tell the pilot not to take off or to land. If you’re traveling to a foreign country, customs officials get on the plane to check your passport.

We all want to be happy. I certainly do. We are all looking for answers. I am. We read self-help books and philosophy books and psychology books. We try meditation and yoga and exercise. We think that if only we had more money, a higher IQ, a better marriage, more friends, more successful children, lived in a warmer climate, or believed in God, we would be a lot happier. We compare ourselves to others who seem to have more, to determine if they are happier than we are.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Well, at least some of that is wrong.

We’re not going about it the right way.

Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College, recently gave a talk, “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness,” in which she described things that we think will make us happy, but don’t, and things that really do.

I was shocked.

It turns out that a private plane would not make me happier. (I’m still not convinced.) It also turns out that people who have religious or spiritual beliefs are happier than those who don’t, no matter what their beliefs. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair to those who don’t or can’t believe, but Sanderson’s research doesn’t lie.

Religious beliefs, she says, “give people a sense of meaning.” It also gives them a social network. “It gives a sense of well being or comfort.”

Despite the misguided notion that suffering makes us better people, the fact is that happiness is good for you and others. “It matters,” says Sanderson, “as members of our society.” Happy people are more helpful, more productive, and more loyal. Happy people are in better physical shape, healthier, and heal faster.

Perplexingly, the things we believe will make us happy actually don’t have any effect on our sense of well being, according to Sanderson. A high IQ doesn’t make you happier.

In fact, I know some really smart people who are miserable. Money? Forget it. Unless you are below the poverty line, it makes no difference how rich you are. The more you have, the less satisfied you may be. Sanderson quotes Benjamin Franklin: “The more one has, the more one wants.”

Good weather doesn’t matter either. (Tell that to me in the middle of an ice storm). She quotes John Steinbeck as saying, “I’ve lived in good weather and it bores the hell out of me.” Major and minor life events, says Sanderson, like a new job or house, are great but don’t last. “You get used to it.” Marriage, which is initially exciting, becomes routine. My favorite observation: “For men, being married makes you happier and it doesn’t matter who [you] are married to,” while a bad marriage for women makes them unhappy. Children? They’re cute in the abstract, but having children doesn’t make you happier.

So what does? Good news!

Religion and nature make us happy.

Bad news: Shopping, but not for ourselves, eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and sex make us happy. Sex makes us very, very happy.

However, men who watch porn are less interested in their wives. Sorry guys. Porn does not make you happy.

Young people are less happy than old people. There’s the mid-life crisis at age 50, but people in their seventies and eighties show increased happiness. Although I can’t help wondering if that’s the thank-God-it’s-almost-over syndrome.

High self esteem and optimism make us happy. Being able to take a bad event and make it into a good event.

Extroversion: We benefit from social environments.

One of the most important elements is happiness in relationships. “Relationships matter,” she says. “Having close friends and family.”

Sanderson quotes C.S. Lewis: “Affection is responsible for 9/10ths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.” Being around happy people is huge. Smiling even if you’re not happy makes you happier. “Happiness is contagious,” says Sanderson, and she quotes Elizabeth Gilbert as saying “happiness is a choice.”

Nobody needs to be told that comparing your life to others you think have a better life will not make you happy. In fact, it can make you crazy. Sanderson quotes Teddy Roosevelt as saying that “comparison is the thief of joy.”

Why are religious people happier? Sanderson thinks it’s less about what you believe than the fact that you have a community, a church, a synagogue, a Bible Study group. It’s the social support network that is fulfilling. You could well be working in a soup kitchen, joining a book club, or belonging to a neighborhood watch. It’s the sense that we are looking after one another that matters.

She also thinks that people who are believers have a certain mindset: the power of prayer, the belief in an afterlife, the sense that someone is looking after you, that there is a higher power, that things happen for a reason. This mindset, she says, helps people make sense of tragedy, struggles, and loss. One can believe, “I’ll see this person later,” or “God only gives you what you can handle‚” or “there is a silver lining in the suffering.”

“Religion,” she says, “is about helping other people and having others looking after you.”

Sanderson says that she is what I call SBNR, spiritual but not religious. She says she is generally happy but even happier when she is giving her speech about happiness. “I have to put my money where my mouth is,” she says. Giving the talk reminds her of what makes her the happiest, being with friends and family and her community. If she doesn’t give the talk for a while, she will suddenly “feel the need coming on” to remind herself.

I will be taking a week in the Caribbean in February. I will go to the airport, wait in endless security lines, pay overweight for baggage, learn the flight was delayed, sit in the middle seat of the cramped economy class and buy a $6 snack. This time, though, I will be thinking of all the unhappy rich people in their private jets worrying about their richer friends in bigger jets. Not me. I will choose to be happy.

Sally Quinn
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  • C J

    The modified title “Religion is a sure route to true happiness” (and the contents) of this article which appeared as Ms. Quinn’s op-ed in The Washington Post demonstrate her very limited thinking ability.

    Religion is not at all a sure route to “true happiness” for human beings, whatever the definition of “true happiness” might be in Ms. Quinn’s mind. Religion has been, FOR INSTANCE, for quite a few
    –of course, not all– priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes in the
    Catholic Church during the past approximately 2,000 years a marvelous means to horribly exploiting laity by brainwashing some of the laity with the idea that they are/were “God’s representatives” so that not honoring them –by overlooking their whatever horrible exploitations– would be “dishonoring God.”

    The recent news item http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/us/chicago-archd… (titled “In Files, a History of Sexual Abuse by Priests in Chicago Archdiocese”) describes the vileness of the priests as well as the bishops/cardinals/popes who protected the vile priests or at least “ignored” the vile deeds of the involved priests. http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-worst-popes-in-histo… describes the vileness of some of the past popes.

    Of course, some of the involved priests/bishops/cardinals/popes COULD argue that “religion has indeed been a sure route” to their experience of “happiness,” which most people would characterize as “pervert”! After all, perverts engage in their pervert deeds with the idea of experiencing “happiness, ” not “misery.” On the other hand, for the devout Catholics whom the vile folks in the Church hierarchy had
    exploited, following their “religion” has certainly not been “a sure
    route to true happiness.”

  • Randy Wanat

    Why should someone believe in nonsense, or be made to feel they must, to have a sense of purpose or meaning in their life and have a social network? And, let’s not forget how happy religion has made homosexuals, atheists, and members of minority religions throughout history. Fairy tales are not a proper foundation for seeking happiness.

  • Jim

    In the sense that being religious and attending church, synagogue and mosque makes you happy because you are with people who share your beliefs and values, religion may make you happy. On the other hand, you will live a life of guilt because you are not as good as a god demands, and you will depend on a fickle, unreliable and invisible god to fulfill your needs. I am now an atheist and feel no less happy than I did when I was a Christian, and maybe even happier.