Three years ago, the Gallup organization released the results of a massive study on the link between religion and happiness, surveying 676,000 people.
The result? Mormons and Jews tied for first place, with a 69.4% “Well-Being Index Composite Score.”
This past weekend at the International Positive Psychology meeting in Orlando, I met a researcher who recently finished a thesis on just this question. Elisa Hunter (see here) has a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied with Marty Seligman, considered by many to be the founder of the field.
Here are 5 reasons that Hunter thinks Mormons may have a head start on happiness.
1. A pro-social orientation
“A lot of research suggests that Mormons are the most pro-social group in America. Active Mormons report that they volunteer an average of 35.6 hours per month, including church callings but not missions. Even if you take out religious volunteering (callings and other church service), Mormons still volunteer as much as the national average. Also, Mormons donate more than twice as much (9.3%) of their income as the national average of people who give to charity (4%) and more than four times as much as the national average overall (2%). Excluding tithing, Mormons still contribute a large amount to charity: $2,024 annually."
2. A focus on family
“Mormonism has a large emphasis on Family Home Evening, family prayer, family meals, and family rituals. A review of 32 publications suggests that family rituals and routines are associated with childhood health, academic achievement, and improved marital satisfaction. Also, one surprising finding is that a study at Emory University showed that knowledge of family history greatly predicted a child’s psychological health. Researchers found higher self-esteem, lower anxiety, and lower behavior problems in kids that know their family’s stories. This could be because they develop a sense of identity that’s larger than just themselves. They’re embedded in a larger, intergenerational context. Knowing that your great-grandma was able to cross the plains after her husband died could give you a greater amount of grit and self-determination.”
3. Purpose and meaning
“There is a substantial relationship between an individual having purpose and meaning in life and their well-being. Mormon doctrine offers its members an explanation for the purpose of life. The belief that life is a temporary learning experience to help God’s children develop lasting joy may help Mormons have positive emotion, character development, resilience, grit, and meaning.”
4. Autonomy and agency
“The motivation that drives behavior has a significant impact on well-being. Behavior that is self-motivated results in more positive outcomes. Mormon doctrine holds that part of the purpose of life is to exercise agency and learn to choose between good and evil. Mormons are taught that compulsion is not God’s way, and Mormon doctrine emphasizes agency, autonomy, and free-will.”
5. Physical health
“There’s a lot of research, of course, on the negative consequences of smoking and drinking. The Word of Wisdom includes a range of healthy behaviors, and also supports the general idea that there’s a deep connection between our bodies and our minds. Positive psychology research calls this the somatopsychic principle, that the body and mind are so inseparably connected that it’s misleading to regard them as two separate entities. What positive psychology is saying about health is not that different from what Mormons hear in church about the body being a temple. This emphasis on health may explain in part why Mormons have lower risk for cardiovascular disease and live, on average, 5 to 10 years longer than other people. Periodic fasting actually plays a part too. Even controlling for the facts that Mormons don’t drink or smoke, researchers attribute this lower disease rate to periodic fasting.”
I then asked Hunter about conflicting research that shows that even though Mormons in general rank as very happy, Utah (which is nearly 70% Mormon) has a high suicide rate and a lot of women on antidepressants.
How do those two facts square with Utah as one of the happiest places in the USA?
“Research shows that some of the happiest places in the world also have the highest suicide rates,” Hunter explains. “Some people think that this paradox is explained by relative comparisons of utility. People compare their happiness to other people’s. It may feel particularly painful to be unhappy when everyone around you is happy. There’s also a lot of research that talks about elevation and suicide.” (See here for a brief discussion of the role of altitude and mountains in suicide rates.)
And while Hunter acknowledges that the antidepressant rate is high among Utahns, she says it’s important to put that in a larger context.
“It’s possible that Mormons are not self-medicating with alcohol and drugs like some people do to combat depression. In addition, Mormons are more likely to seek medical help, evidenced by the fact that Utah ranks high for people seeking prescriptions for other things like thyroid medication or anticonvulsants or anti-rheumatics. It’s not just for antidepressants.”
Also, Mormon women have more children and are thus more susceptible to post-partum depression. They also have a higher rate of women who are stay-at-home mothers, a life situation that puts women at risk for depression, at least for a time.