Highly religious people say they’re happier, too, survey finds

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A new Pew Research survey finds highly religious people are happier than others.

Photo courtesy of ra2studio via Shutterstock

A new Pew Research survey finds highly religious people are happier than others.

(RNS) Look around. Three in 10 people you see claim they are pretty satisfied with life, happy, healthy and moral, too.

They’re the “highly religious,” 30 percent of U.S. adults who say they pray daily and attend church at least once a week.

Religion in Everyday Life,” a new survey from Pew Research released Tuesday (April 12), teases out the particular ways they differ from the majority of U.S. Christians who are less observant and from non-Christians, including the “nones” who claim no religious identity.

Highly religious adults more engaged with family, more likely to volunteer and happier overall. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

Highly religious adults more engaged with family, more likely to volunteer and happier overall. Photo courtesy of Pew Research Center

The highly religious are overwhelmingly (95 percent) Protestant, Catholic or other Christians. Nearly half (49 percent) are white evangelicals. Most of the overall group (62 percent) are women.

And many are smiling. Four in 10 highly religious people say they’re “very happy” with the way things are going in life, compared to 29 percent of those who are not highly religious.

But, “we don’t know why they are happier“ or more satisfied with their health, said Pew researcher Besheer Mohamed, a co-author of the report.

“We see the patterns but we don’t know what is causing what. Is it that regular churchgoers get something from the church practice and involvement or is it that a certain sort of person is more likely to go to worship more frequently?” he said.

Nearly three in four (74 percent) highly religious people say they’re “very satisfied with family life” compared to 67 percent of those who are not highly religious.

And 47 percent say they gather with extended family at least monthly (compared to 30 percent of those not highly religious).


RELATED STORY: Pew study: More Americans reject religion, but believers firm in faith


The less religious may also be prayerful folks who attend worship less frequently or people with no religious affiliation who value moral behavior. The report points out that many say “attributes such as gratitude, forgiveness and honesty are essential” to what being religious or moral means to them personally.

Still, the survey finds many similarities in beliefs and behavior between the two groups. 

Few rely on clergy.

Rather than consult a pastor or priest, 82 percent of the highly religious and less religious rely on their own research when making important decisions; 45 percent turn to prayer and personal reflection; 43 percent to family; 25 percent to professional experts; but only 15 percent to religious leaders.

“It’s the age of Google and consulting your own conscience or Aunt Susie,” said Boston University professor of sociology Nancy Ammerman, an adviser to Pew on the research.

Believers don’t act on their faith in the marketplace.

Fewer than 30 percent, highly religious or not, and across all traditions, say they pay attention to a company’s environmental record or to whether it pays fair wages before making purchases. Bringing religious views to economic choices “is still very low no matter where you look,” she said.

Couch potatoes are “very satisfied with their health.”

The highly religious also admit they overeat about as often, and don’t exercise much more than the seven in 10 Americans whose everyday lives are less shaped by religiosity.

Most people rely on own research when making major life decisions; highly religious also rely on prayer. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Most people rely on own research when making major life decisions; highly religious also rely on prayer. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

The report draws on two major sources. The basis for most of the demographic data is the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study based on a telephone survey of 35,000 adults that has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point. A second survey, delving into beliefs and behavior, was conducted among 3,278 members of Pew’s American Trends Panel and it has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. There were too few interviews to break out findings about minority religions or among historically black Protestants.


RELATED STORY: Christians lose ground, ‘nones’ soar in new portrait of US religion


Pew also asked people about what they saw as the essentials of their faith or philosophy.

According to the report, “Christians are about equally likely to cite moral behaviors as vital to their Christian identity as they are to mention explicitly religious behaviors.”

Among Christians, the top five of 16 beliefs and behaviors were:

  • Belief in God (86 percent)
  • Gratitude for what they have (71 percent)
  • Forgiving those who have wronged them (69 percent)
  • Honesty (67 percent)
  • Praying regularly (63 percent)

At the bottom: Living a healthy lifestyle and resting on the Sabbath each were cited by only 18 percent. Only 14 percent said being Christian means “buying from companies that pay a fair wage.”

Among the 27 percent who said they were religiously unaffiliated, the top five criteria for a moral life were similar, minus God:

  • Being honest at all times (58 percent)
  • Being grateful for what they have (53 percent)
  • Committing to spend time with family (47 percent)
  • Forgiving those who have wronged them (39 percent)
  • Working to protect the environment (35 percent)

There was one other noteworthy divide between the highly religious and the other 70 percent of Americans.

The most faithful were also more likely to admit that they told a “white lie” in the prior week (45 percent compared to 39 percent among the less religious).

“Maybe they just have a greater sense of introspection or conscience,” said Ammerman. “Maybe they are more empathetic and attuned to other people’s feelings. Or maybe they’re just more willing to tell (that they had lied).”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national reporter for RNS) 

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  • James

    But would you believe anything a “highly religious” person says? They repeatedly lie and lie and lie.

  • Jay

    Well, ignorance is bliss. No wonder these people are happy.

  • Jon

    Previously, we’ve seen that while the religious *say* they are happier, more careful research shows that they are not happier, but rather just saying they are.

    That’s an important fact to include in article like this.

    Here is the reference to the actual research, and plenty of articles on it can be found by simply googling:

    ” Sean P. Wojcik, Arpine Hovasapian, Jesse Graham, Matt Motyl, Peter H. Ditto.Conservatives report, but liberals display, greater happiness. Science, 2015 DOI: 10.1126/science.1260817 ”

    How ’bout it Cathy? Do you think something about this should be added to the article above for completeness? Thanks .. … … … ….. .. . . .

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  • Tertullian

    LOL, someone’s not a happy person.

  • Jack

    The key to being happy, whether religious or not, is gratitude.

    If you think life owes you things, then if you have them, you think you deserve them and take them for granted, while if you don’t have them, you are frustrated and disappointed by your lack of them.

    But if you think life doesn’t owe you anything, then whatever you have you’ll be grateful for, and whatever you don’t have won’t bother you.

    “Highly religious” people start out with the premise that life doesn’t owe them anything. That’s why they’re happier. When they get something, it’s a pleasant surprise. When they don’t, it’s not a big deal because they weren’t expecting anything.

    So it’s not really a mystery at all once you think about it.

  • Jack

    I detect a wee bit of envy here.

  • Jack

    What do “they” “lie” about, James?

    Specifics, please.

  • Jack

    What are they “ignorant” about, Jay?

    Specifics, please.

    (This should be fun….)

  • Jack

    Reading these posts evokes a portrait of a large family where some of the children grew up and rebelled against and rejected the parents while the others stayed close and continued to love them.

    Years later, the rebels are unhappy and angry, jealous of the ones who stayed true to the parents and are reaping the benefits of rich and loving family ties.

    They want the happiness that comes from such a relationship but are too proud or set in their ways to admit they made a wrong turn years ago and that they need to do an about-face and eat some humble pie along the way.

  • Jack

    Jon, first all, the article you’ve mentioned doesn’t compare religion to lack thereof, but political conservatives to political liberals. Thus it’s hardly relevant to the topic at hand.

    Second, even within their own limited arena — politics alone — the conclusions of the researchers are far from well-grounded. Here’s one critique that explains why:

    http://thefederalist.com/2015/03/19/whos-happier-liberals-or-conservatives/

  • Shawnie5

    “The key to being happy, whether religious or not, is gratitude.”

    PRECISELY, Jack! My husband and I have taught our kids this exact same truth.

    Whenever we feel like grousing, we count blessings. It works every time.

    Plus, my husband, being a history buff, remembers the guys at Normandy. Then nothing looks nearly as bad.

  • Shawnie5

    Hey Jack, Phil’s back. And he identifies as a woman now. LOL!

  • Michael Glass

    “When ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise.” Happiness is not always a sign of being on the right track.

  • Dr. Gaddie

    Pew data relies on self-reporting respondents, and therefore is highly misleading.

  • Shawnie5

    Funny how I don’t see complaints about Pew data being misleading when they report about the number of Christians in the US declining, or about increased support for ssm, or any other favorite liberal propositions.

  • Barry the Baptist

    Agreed. Nobody ever made anything better by assuming it should be better.

    Whenever you’re forced to deal with tyrants or racism or robbers, you should just realize that there is no expectation of the way they should behave: just be happy when you realize that you haven’t been murdered today!

    Additionally, look at all the “highly religious” people: they know how it should be. They never complain, never write their congressman, never try to enact laws that regulate the behavior of others. Because they don’t feel that they deserve it! If they did, they would!

    I believe it was Jesus who said “nothing good can come of desire. Just go with the flow and, if anything good happens, cool beans!”

  • Barry the Baptist

    Reading your posts evokes the image of a dog defecating: it looks like there’s a lot of concentration going on, but, really, there’s not a whole lot of though behind the behavior. And the results are about as useful to the rest of us.

  • Barry the Baptist

    Well said.

  • Barry the Baptist

    That might have something to do with your reading comprehension. There is always somebody pointing out how this data is not to be taken at face value. The research authors are usually the first.

  • Jon

    Um, because being “highly religious” is strongly correlated with being “highly conservative”. Because we are talking about the same group of people, of course it’s relevant.

    As for the federalist article, it’s hardly a refutation. After spending much of the article playing “no true scotsman”, the rest makes some vague assertions without backing anything up with data. It’s pretty funny.

    Hey, that’s something – the pathetic attempt by a conservative to make a point in that article made me laugh. Hence, I was made happier. Maybe that’s why……. ….

  • Jon

    Even if true (which we don’t know), doesn’t the idea of gratitude work directly against religion? If this universe isn’t “designed” for you, if we are here only due to the workings of natural laws, then of course any good thing we have is an added bonus, and hence we non-religious feel great gratitude at even the smallest joy or averted disaster.

    If, on the other hand, this universe is specifically created by a father figure who considers us his special children, even made in the image of HIM, then of course we get good things, and shouldn’t be surprised by good things. But bad things – if Zeus or whoever is really in control – shouldn’t happen, so religion should make one depressed when they do.

    and that’s exactly what actual research has found. http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/yourcommunity/2013/09/religious-believers-more-depressed-than-atheists-study.html

    … .. . .. . … . . . . . …

  • When I was a Christian (for 49 years) I sincerely thought I was very happy.
    But it was all based on a fantasy.
    Fear is not edifying. But that is what keeps people thinking they are happy believing in blood sacrifices, magical transubstantiation and happiest of all (and most immoral) is knowing I ultimately was relieved of personal responsibilities.

    I’m much happier now.

  • Jack

    As I was saying….

  • Jack

    That’s silly….lying means not just stating a falsehood, but knowing it to be false.

    Obviously, people of faith believe what they’re saying, especially those across time and place who’ve been willing to pay for it with their lives — when your heroes like Stalin and Pol Pot and Fidel become unhinged and start killing them.

  • Jack

    It’s fun to watch proud and arrogant people charge into the stone-cold wall of objective reality — so go right ahead and I’ll take photos.

  • Jack

    “Stephanie,” try reading before responding. If you can’t read, find someone who can and let them read it aloud — slow—ly.

  • Jack

    No, Jon, that doesn’t work because there are plenty of “highly religious people” who are politically liberal and plenty of people of low religious interest and commitment who are politically conservative. No, not the majority, but in both cases, a big enough minority to be a real problem.

    As for your response to the Federalist article, you’ve turned burden of proof on its head. The burden is on the one making the assertion. The article shows the difficulties with the assertion being made. It’s pretty obvious what’s wrong with the original article and research. Pointing to facial expressions as indicators of true vs. feigned happiness is worse than silly. The whole attempt at trying to find out who is objectively happy and who isn’t is almost comical. It’s a desperate attempt to try to convince the world that religious people aren’t “really” happy, but are just faking it.

  • No such thing as an”ex”-Christian,Atheist Max (Not a genuine one,anyway.)—It would be like claiming to be an ex-human,or denying against all evidence that your own birth mother actually gave birth to you.Sounds like you’re an ex-catholic,which most definitely is NOT the same as being a genuine,Blood-bought, Spirit-filled child / servant of Almighty God. (Almost 40 years; spiritual birthday October 4th, 1976.)–PEACE.?.

  • LCR,

    “no such thing as an ex-Christian”

    Nonsense. And you have no clue how insulting and demeaning your comment is because you are still a believer afflicted with immoral blinders of religion.

    The DAY God vanished was one of the most emotionally draining and exhausting experiences of my life. 49 years of loyalty and faith crumbled away like sand through my fingers in the course of 5 seconds!

    To claim I never believed is to insult my integrity, trivialize an earth-shattering and painful insight and to mercilessly dismiss millions of people simply because they do not see God anymore.

    And yet nobody will delete your cruel comment. Because you managed to work in some praise for the invisible leprechaun in your remarks.

  • Jack

    As usual, “Stephanie,” you dodged the question, which is how someone can be “lying” if they truly believe what they say.

    Lying means you know that what you say is true is, in fact, not true.

  • Jack

    I shouldn’t have to explain the obvious, but the article addresses happiness and religion, not happiness and politics. That’s the main problem with Jon’s reply.

    Jon’s reply to this point was within the realm of normalcy, but yours is out there in space. I suggest a one-way ticket back to earth so you won’t be tempted to take flight again.

  • Jack

    Phil, grow up. Even at your advanced age, it’s still not too late.

  • Jack

    I see, Shawnie. He sounds like he’s banged his head against the wall one too many times.

  • Jack

    That’s excellent, Shawnie. I’ve yet to meet a happy person who is not a grateful person.

    Since people’s innate personalities vary, don’t be surprised if one kid finds it harder to do than another. It just means that kid will have to work a little harder on this score than another. And that’s okay.

  • Jack

    The gratitude principle can work for anyone. In other words, gratitude seems to be the greatest predictor of happiness regardless of whether the grateful person is religious or not.

    So if that’s right, then, as you imply, the real question is whether it’s true that the higher the religiosity, the greater the gratitude.

    While you make a decent case for why at least some people who are not theists could feel a great sense of gratitude, I can see why highly religious people would be more likely to do so. While both theists and non-theists are capable of this gratitude, the religious person has the added bonus of believing that a real being brought him or her into existence. Gratitude is expectedly stronger if its object is a real being, rather than a thing like the cosmos or nature.

    And for a biblical theist, there’s an added reason — the Bible claims we are fallen, and yet good things still come our way. When good comes our way, it is undeserved.

  • Jack

    You’re reacting exactly as expected if my contention were correct.

  • Jack

    Happiness is subjective so if you feel happy, you are happy. If you don’t, you’re not.

  • Jack

    Max, you’ve been caught in so many untruths on these boards over the years — such as repeating verbatim factual misstatements weeks after being corrected on them – -that it’s more than rich to talk about your “integrity.”

    You need to get over yourself and realize that whether you’re a theist or atheist, you’re still you and the “you” isn’t a very honest or fair-minded human being. You’re just as dogmatic and rigid as an atheist as you probably were as a theist.

  • Jack

    Publicly relieving yourself of the burdens of your thought life might be cathartic for you but probably not for most people.

    Whether it was bad toilet training or a mania acquired later in life is for you to figure out.

  • Jesus taught us to be like children in regards to trusting God with everything as a child trusts his parents. To me this is the key. Children are happy. Jesus taught us over and over again not to worry. Why worry? What good does it do? None! He says to trust God for God loves us and cares sooooooo much for us. I know this is true in my life. I trust God rather than worry, and I have the peace and joy of the Lord within. God makes it simple, man makes things complicated. God sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have peace and communion with God ALL THE TIME. Eternal life starts when we receive Christ as Savior, not after we die. Receive Him as Savior and Lord. Turn away from sin (sin will surely rob you of peace and joy), and abide in God through His Word and in the power of His Holy Spirit. God Bless

  • @jack,

    “Rigid”

    There is no chocolate ice cream in your freezer. If you claim it, prove it.
    There is no money in your bank account. If you claim it, prove it.
    You have no beautiful girlfriend in NYC. If you claim it, prove it.

    YOU have no god. If you claim it, prove it.
    Lying is immoral.
    If that sounds rigid, so is the definition of decent behavior.

  • p

    @ Jack
    “Lying means you know that what you say is true is, in fact, not true.”

    ” Faith is believing what you know ain’t so. ”
    Clemens

  • Ben in Oakland

    I’m a great believer in the principle of gratitude, Jack. But gratitude is an attitude. I don’t need to be grateful to God, I can be grateful to the entire universe. And my experience of gratitude as an attitude to being is that you create more of the things you are grateful for by being grateful for them.

    My brother was one who believed he was a reverse Midas: “all the gold I touch turns to s**t.” It wasn’t all that surprising that it seemed to be true, unfortunately. You could count on him to produce the worst possible decision with the worst possible results.

    The psychological equivalent of gratitude is found in “I’m ok, you’re ok.”