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Religion and Happiness

by Michael E. Nielsen, PhD

        Many people expect religion to bring them happiness. Does this actually seem to be the case? Are religious people happier than nonreligious people? And if so, why might this be?

        Researchers have been intrigued by such questions. Most studies have simply asked people how happy they are, although studies also may use scales that try to measure happiness more subtly than that. In general, researchers who have a large sample of people in their study tend to limit their measurement of happiness to just one or two questions, and researchers who have fewer numbers of people use several items or scales to measure happiness.

        What do they find? In a nutshell, they find that people who are involved in religion also report greater levels of happiness than do those who are not religious. For example, one study involved over 160,000 people in Europe. Among weekly churchgoers, 85% reported being "very satisfied" with life, but this number reduced to 77% among those who never went to church (Inglehart, 1990). This kind of pattern is typical -- religious involvement is associated with modest increases in happiness.


        Of course, church attendance is a simple way of measuring religiousness. When researchers have examined how religious experiences relate to happiness, they find the same sort of pattern. Religious experiences, particularly when they happened during prayer, has been the most powerful predictor of happiness in some studies. (For more information, see Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle, 1997). This relationship seems to be stronger among older people.

        Why might this pattern hold? Psychologists tend to focus on three kinds of explanations:

        1. Social Support. Religious involvement is a way of gaining social support. People in general are happier when they are around others who are supportive. Religious groups tend to offer this. This explanation is supported by the fact that the overall pattern of religious people being happier is more pronounced among people who are single, elderly, or in poor health. Related to this is the idea that religion helps people feel closer to God, who might also be viewed as personally supportive.

        2. Firm Beliefs. Happiness and life satisfaction increase when we have a sense of where we are going and what is important in life. Of course, many people find this in religion. This might also be related to the rise of 'strict' or conservative churches, which offer more certitude than do more liberal churches.

        3. Religion Itself. Religious experiences can be very positive. They offer a person a feeling of being in contact with God (also known as "transcendence") and contact with others. These are usually positive things and, of course, if someone is more involved in positive things, they will tend to feel happier than someone who is less-involved in those things.

        These are three common ways of accounting for the link between religion and happiness. Unfortunately, most research in this area is correlational, meaning that we cannot claim that religion causes happiness. It could just as easily be the case that happy people also tend to be more religious,, or some other factor may account for changes in both religiousness and happiness.

        One important exception to this trend, however, is found in one of the most famous studies in the psychology of religion. In the days before research boards reviewed research proposals before the studies were conducted, Pahnke devised an experiment to induce people to have a religious experience. On a Good Friday, when they were to meditate in a chapel for 2.5 hours, twenty theology students were given either psilocybin or a placebo. The students who were given the psilocybin reported intense religious experiences, as you might imagine. Their levels of happiness also were significantly greater than the control group reported. But what is especially interesting is that these effects remained 6 months after the experiment, as the psilocybin group reported more "persistent and positive changes" in their attitudes to life than did the placebo group.

        It appears, then, that intense religious experiences may lead to long-lasting increases in a person's happiness. Of course, the experiences in Pahnke's experiment were truly different from the kinds that the typical person encounters in their everyday life. Just how easily we might generalize from one type of experience to the other is a tricky and complex question. The more mundane, everyday experiences people have in their churches, synagogues or mosques are qualitatively different from the intense kinds of experiences that Pahnke's study investigated.

        All of this leads to the interesting question of whether there are occasions where religion is associated with less happiness. It appears that this may actually be the case. Remember, important differences may emerge when we measure variables in different ways. One dimension of religiousness is known as mysticism, which is the term used to convey a sense of timelessness and a loss of sense of self. A study by Argyle and Hills (2000) found a modest negative correlation between mysticism and happiness, meaning that people who had mystical experiences also tended to report lower levels of happiness. One possibility is that a mystical experience may result in a sense of being disconnected from others. The social support that occurs when involved in religious worship with other people is not part of the mystical experience, and this might be at least part of the reason for the negative correlation Argyle and Hills found. Certainly, this needs additional study.

        Another way that religion may be associated with decreases in happiness is when religion is involved in religious conflicts. When family members or friends experience conflict over religion, the wounds can be deep and long-lasting. In such cases, religion's effect on happiness is mixed. On the one hand, it causes conflict and dissension with loved ones, while on the other hand, it may generate a sense of certainty and yield associations with other like-minded people. This characterized many of the conflicts in research that I conducted a few years ago (Nielsen, 1998).

        Whenever considering studies such as these, it is important to keep in mind that they report trends in groups of people; there are individual exceptions to these trends. Clearly, there is much remaining to be uncovered in this area of research. More studies using different methods will help us to understand when and how religion affects happiness.

        For additional reading on this subject I recommend:

        Other sources used in this include:

        • Argyle, M., and Hills, P. (2000). Religious experiences and their relations with happiness and personality. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 10, 157-172.

        • Inglehart, R. (1990). Culture shift in advanced industrial society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

        • Nielsen, M. E. (1998). An assessment of religious conflicts and their resolutions. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 181-190.

        • Pahnke, W. H. (1966). Drugs and mysticism. International Journal of Parapsychology, 8, 295-314.


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