Religion and Its Effect on Happiness

Updated on June 25, 2018

Abstract

Previous studies have explored the link between religiosity and happiness, however this link has often come across as inconclusive. This study compares the self-reported happiness of students at the University of Denver to their reported levels of spirituality. The study also explores the connection between reported levels of spirituality and the extent of subject’s participation in their beliefs. Using electronic surveys with students and interviews with several pastors, the study concluded that there is in fact a positive correlation between reported happiness and spirituality as well as religious participation. These results provide new insights into how daily spirituality can predict daily well-being.

Religiosity and Happiness: Does Spirituality Affect Well-Being?

Spirituality has always been a cornerstone in our nation’s history and continues to be in modern society. Many of the early American colonies were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women who were faced with religious persecution from their homeland. These brave settlers decided to stand up for their beliefs and fled to a new land full of promises of religious freedom. They believed that it was their duty to live out their religion in the way that their God intended. Therefore, it is no surprise that religion still holds a significant importance in many people’s lives today. In a survey of 1509 adults in the United States, 69% reported a need to experience spiritual growth in their daily lives, showing that over half of the nation is heavily invested in their religious beliefs (Kashdan and Nezlek, 2012).

Spirituality is defined in this context as a subjective understanding of establishing and maintaining a relationship with some form of divine, higher being. Many psychologists theorize that spirituality provides several factors that contribute to a higher standard of well-being including a clear set of beliefs about purpose in life, a sense of belonging, and a distinct sense of life’s meaning. This stability in a world full of uncertainty accounts for a feeling of control that cannot be surpassed by other social outlets. The sense of belonging that accompanies attending church and reading religious texts is another link that theorists are heavily researching and will be extended upon in this paper by looking at the influence of religious participation on reported happiness (Kashdan and Nezlek, 2012).

The Bible, Quran, Torah, and many other religious texts consistently warn their readers of the dangers of the outside world. Many times, they even go so far as to encourage times of tribulation, because such trials are considered tests of faith. Despite widely varying core beliefs, each of these texts preach that happiness is not guaranteed, at least not on this Earth. However, countless studies have shown that people who regularly attend church or are involved in their religious communities report higher levels of happiness than non-believers. A 2015 survey conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center found that the only social activity associated with continuous happiness was participation in a religious group (Walsh, 2016). Another study published in the “Journal of Happiness and Well-being” also found a significantly higher difference in the reported happiness of believers versus non-believers using multiple happiness scalings (Sillick, Stevens, Cathcart 2016).

To find if this correlation rings true, I asked the question, “does spirituality increase well-being?” Some follow-up questions of interest are if religious upbringing, age, gender, or church attendance have a significant impact on happiness. I conducted my research by distributing an electronic survey to different age groups and genders. I also interviewed multiple pastors to understand if they are arguably happier than the typical non-believer due to their above-average involvement in religion.

Based on prior research, I hypothesized that there would be a strong positive correlation between spirituality and happiness. I also hypothesized that within the students that reported themselves as spiritual, there would be even higher levels of happiness among those that attend church or another religious ceremony at least once a week. This element of socialization has been proven in aforementioned literature to have a significant impact on reported well-being. The surveys and interviews support the conclusion that spirituality is positively associated with higher levels of happiness.

Methods

An online survey (See Appendix, Sample 1) was distributed to students at the University of Denver through students’ DU email accounts the week of May 14, 2018. The survey was open for six days and included demographic data such as age and gender, along with several questions about the extent of both their and their parent’s religious affiliation. The subjects were asked how often they attended religious services and were asked to rate themselves on a scale of one to ten to determine how religious they were, their average happiness, and the influence they believed their religion had over their happiness.

Because performance bias was a possible obstacle in collecting reliable data, due to the inaccurate way participants might react to the perception of judgment that comes with having the researcher present in face-to-face interviews, the survey was distributed online s. Since every DU account includes the name of the subject, totally anonymity could not be achieved in who was invited to participate, but the survey was anonymous, significantly decreasing the pressure of performance bias.

I also interviewed three pastors from separate denominations to determine their demographic data, how they came to be pastors, and their average happiness. The goal of the interviews was to determine if they were significantly happier than non-believers due to their increased involvement in their respective religions. The interviews were conducted via phone calls to each of the subjects’ offices. While there was not totally anonymity there was still less performance bias present due to the lack of face-to-face interaction that would have occurred if the interview had been in person. The subjects provided detailed responses that corresponded to the data gathered by the surveys.

Results

Twenty-one students responded to the survey via DU email by the time the survey closed on May 20, 2018. Of those subjects, eleven were male and ten were female. Three were eighteen, nine were nineteen, five were twenty, three were twenty-one, and one was twenty-two for an average age of eighteen. Once the demographic questions had been answered, subjects moved on to the portion of the survey that asked them to rate themselves on scales concerning spirituality and happiness.

The first question of the survey (see Sample 1 in Appendix) asked participants to rate on a scale of one to ten how religious they believed they were. The majority of responses fell in the six to eight range, however, there were some outliers as well, which brought down the overall mean to 6.95 (see Figure 1). The next question on the survey asked participants to rate their spirituality on a scale of one to ten (see Figure 2). The data for spirituality had a greater range of answers, accounting for the increased variance in the data. The mean spirituality rating of the twenty-one participants came out to be 6.19, slightly lower than the mean happiness rating. However, it isn’t until the variables of happiness and spirituality are compared side by side that the correlation becomes easy to see. Table 1 shows the range of happiness scores when plotted on a horizontal scaling of religiosity ratings. While the majority of the happiness ratings were between seven and eight, they were spread out over a larger range when correlated with spirituality.

The other correlation that the survey investigated was how spirituality correlated with the extent of religious participation (see Table 2). Subjects who fell on the higher rankings of self-reported spirituality (seven to nine) consistently attended church or another religious ceremony once a week or more. To fully investigate the link between spirituality and happiness, I interviewed three pastors of different denominations to determine if their above-average involvement in religion would affect their perceived happiness (see Sample 2 Appendix). As suspected, the pastors each reported happiness levels above the mean from the student data set (see Table 3).

Discussion

The hypothesis that spirituality does have a positive effect on happiness was supported by the results of the survey. This can be seen in Table 1, which shows that of those with the highest levels of happiness (between eight and ten), 87.5% reported a spirituality rating of seven or higher. This data shows that the majority of subjects that reported above the mean had higher spirituality ratings. High levels of reported happiness were also reported by the pastors who, as predicted, had significantly higher spirituality ratings than the students’ mean. When asked to explain how their religion impacted their well-being, one pastor said, “My beliefs are what get me through some of the hardest days.”

The other hypothesis that this study undertook was if the amount of participation in church affected the self-reported ratings of spirituality. Table 2 clearly shows that of the twenty-one participants, those above the mean of spirituality either attended church once a week or more, which were the two highest possible answers. This correlation could also explain why those that are more spiritual tend to be happier because church can serve as a positive social outlet as well as a rewarding aspect of spiritual growth. When interviewing pastors, I asked what they did outside of church to maintain their religious beliefs. The answers ranged from social encounters such as youth group and fellowship meetings to various volunteer acts such as mission trips, volunteering at local schools, and helping out with youth summer programs.

From interviewing pastors, and surveying a sample of students at the University of Denver, I can conclude that there is a positive correlation between spirituality and happiness. The data also revealed that greater religious participation leads to better self-reported spirituality. However, the results of this survey and interviews are not entirely generalizable due to the small sample sizes and the limited locational scope of the study.

Future studies on the connection between spirituality and happiness would benefit from a larger sample size with a much more diverse group of people than students at a medium-sized liberal university campus. In addition, many of the participants were chosen based on convenience rather than with the interest of creating a truly random sample. If the survey were to be redistributed, I would recommend sending it electronically across not just the DU campus but other schools as well from across the world so that location would not bias the results. Despite these shortcomings, the study was still able to survey both the spiritual and non-spiritual in percentages consistent with national statistics (Kashdan and Nezlek, 2012). With this new research in mind, it is important to remember that religion is only one path to well-being and there are other ways for the less spiritual to achieve happiness.

References

Appendix

Sample One: Survey

1. What gender do you identify as?

  • Male
  • Female
  • Other

2. What age group do you belong to?

  • 18
  • 19
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23+

3. On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being very religious) how religious would you rate yourself?

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10

4. How often do you attend a religious service?

  • Never
  • Less than once a month
  • Once a month
  • Once a week
  • More than once a week

5. Do you interact on a daily basis with people of your religion?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Not Applicable

6. Parent’s religious preference?

  • Short answer

7. Is your parent’s religious preference the same as yours?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Not Applicable

8. On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being very influential) How influential were your parents on your faith?

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10

9. On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being very happy) What would you rate your average

happiness?

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10

10. On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being very influential) How influential is your religion to your overall happiness?

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10

11. Are there any other activities you participate in that help maintain your faith?

  • Short answer

Sample Two: Interview

  1. Name, gender, age?

  2. Religion?

  3. How long have you been a pastor/minister/priest/etc.?

  4. What would you rate your average happiness on a scale of 1 to 10.

  5. What effect does your religion have on your average happiness?

  6. Was there a particular reason for becoming a pastor?

  7. Do you agree with everything in your church’s statement of faith?

  8. How often do you interact with people of the same faith as you?

  9. How is practicing your beliefs important to you?

  10. What do you do outside of church to maintain your religious beliefs?

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