Religion…it’s good for you

Religion makes you happy, according to a new study from the Paris School of Economics.

The author, professor Andrew Clark, says:

“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.”

Fine and dandy, but surely the aim of religious faith is not just to make you happier? It’s to serve God, isn’t it? Imagine some scientist with a clipboard popping up beside Jesus at Mount Golgotha and saying ‘er…Jesus, studies suggest that 99% of all crucified people suffer a marked drop in happiness, we would recommend you abandon your religious faith at this point and obey the Roman Empire’.

If religious people are happier than non-religious, it is perhaps precisely because they are not desperately searching for their own happiness in this life, but instead are much more accepting of the fact that this life is imperfect, that it is in some ways a ‘vale of sorrows’, but they have a belief in something higher than mere happiness and satisfaction – the belief they are following the wishes of their maker.


  • Olly R says:


    I agree with your point. The problem stems from social science methodology where a phenomenon as nuanced and multidimensional as religion is often evaluated in its effects on some single quantitative “outcome measure”, which is often “satisfaction” or “wellbeing”. This is also the main methodology for evaluating therapy, because the assumption is that therapy should lead to some change on that single measure. If it does – success. If not – failure. You can see why its popular – its tangible proof that some change is going on. Yet in truth spiritual transformation and the kind of transformation that can occur through therapy is qualitative rather than quantitative and may involve change on innumerable variables. This systemic shift is invisible to a rating scale evaluation form.

    There is one more problem – to assume that a more satisfied or happy person is a good thing is in fact too simplistic. Jung said that therapy would make things worse before things got better, because of the painful collapse of old repressive or suppressive coping strategies. Freud said that we should hope for a balance of happiness and suffering, not to eliminate the latter, and well, the great Thomas Edison said “show me a satisfied man and I will show you a failure”! He believed that dissatisfaction is an important driver of creativity and growth, as do I.

    Religion at least gives people a life framework where the aim is not happiness, but service, strength of character and purpose. All emotions can be meaningful and purposeful, and all should be felt in service to others and to a higher principle. We need a balance of light and darkness in our souls to be healthy and whole, just like we need night and day. Too much suffering is terrible, but too much happiness is numbing.


  • Jules says:

    Agree with you there Olly,
    Theres a good piece in the New York Review of Books about this, taking positive psychology to task for their blithe use of the word ‘happiness’, without accepting that the term can mean widely different things for different people.

    ill put it on the blog, but heres a link in the meantime:

  • Bumpy says:

    From my own experience of being brought up in a highly religious (catholic) family, I would guess that a) religious people are less psychologically damaged by misfortune because they feel so guilt-ridden and inadequate all the time that they’re bloody miserable to start with anyway, so how much more damaged can anything make them? b) a lot of religious people wouldn’t admit to being unhappy because they’d see it as blasphemy.

    I think your other post about cultural differences in what people mean by “happiness” is pertinent here. The point about religious people is that their religion teaches them how to think or feel about things (or at least what language to use about their thoughts or feelings) e.g. the modern translations of the Beatitudes that say “happy are those who mourn” etc instead of “blessed are….” the word “happy” here meaning something like “fortunate”, which isn’t the same thing as being in a good emotional state. But couldn’t speakers of modern English confuse these meanings and believe that they’re being taught that they are actually happy-meaning-blissed-out?

    IMHO one of the reasons for belonging to a religion is that you want to be different from the way you really are, which ineffably leads to a dichotomy between the way you really feel and the language you use to describe they way you are. Including when you’re answering questions for a survey.

  • Anonymous says:

    I know something that bothers me about religion that I saw from attending a Christian school is the group think that takes place to marginalize and eventually expel the outsider. A bogeyman is raised and described in depth (a secularist, whatever) and then someone can be made a scapegoat who seems to fit that description from within the group. In an effort to show what happens to an outsider they are publicly humiliated and then expelled, usually. The group then goes on its merry way, looking for more scapegoats to punish. That about says what religion basically does as far as I can see. Group think.

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