How religious folks can improve their well-being

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Opium poppy

Opium poppyIt’s an established fact that religion makes people happy. Or that happiness makes people religious. Or anyway, that religion and happiness go hand in hand.

Ask a bunch of people, “Did you experience a lot of happiness yesterday?” and those who say that religion in an important part of their daily life are more likely to answer in the affirmative than those who say it isn’t. That goes for non-Americans as well as Americans, in the aggregate as well as one by one. That is to say, there’s more reported happiness in more religious states like Mississippi than in less religious ones like Vermont. And in more religious poor countries like Rwanda than in less religious rich ones ones like Denmark. (O those melancholy Danes!)

You will not be surprised by such findings if you believe, with Marx, that religion is the opium of the people. But it does unsettle mainstream economists like Angus Deaton of Princeton and Arthur A. Stone of Stony Brook, albeit they wish to redirect measurement of human well-being “away from GDP in an era when growth rates are diminishing across much of the rich world.” As they put it in the latest issue of the American Economic Review, “These results cast serious doubt on using (the hedonic version of) happiness to provide an overall assessment of human well-being.”

What’s a poor economist to do? Well, there’s a less hedonic way of measuring subjective well-being (SWB) that isn’t at such odds with material realities. Ask people to rank their lives on a scale of one to 11 (worst possible to best possible), and lo and behold, GDP and other conventional measures of social well-being (e.g. health) make for higher life rankings. In other words, the happier inhabitants of Mississippi and Rwanda rate their lives worse than the less happy denizens of Vermont and Denmark do.

Taken together, the hedonic and evaluative measures of SWB post the uestion: What should religious people do to bring their quality of life up their happiness quotient? The answer: Move to a less religious locale. Being religious in a secular place seems to be the best of all possible worlds.

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