Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

5 reasons why Mormons are happier, says researcher

HappinessThree 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.”

Why do Mormons score consistently high in these studies? (See also here and here.)

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 prosocial 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?

Elisa Hunter

Elisa Hunter

“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.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • With regards to the use of anti-depressants in Utah, i don’t know if you are aware of research research that suggests this may be tied to altitude, rather than LDS culture? In other words, suicide and anti-depressant use are greater in several US states that have greater-than-average elevation. Here are a few links:

  • Jana mentioned this when she wrote, “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.).

  • Two comments about this poll by Gallup: 1) the differences between various religions and even the non-religious was a matter of a few percentage points i.e. in other words not a significant difference at all. And 2) although Buddhists and believers of Hinduism number about 2 million each in America according to the latest Pew Research poll, they were not included. Muslims who number about 2.5 million were included. So we can see some bias in the people who conducted the poll for Gallup.

  • Here’s the REAL top 5:
    1. Prozac & Porn
    2. Prozac & Porn
    3. Prozac & Porn
    4. Prozac & Porn
    5. Prozac & Porn

  • From the front-page blurb:

    “How can Mormons be so happy while having high rates of antidepressant use?”

    Doesn’t the question answer itself?

  • “It’s possible that Mormons are not self-medicating with alcohol or drugs … to combat depression…”

    I’ve seen this rationalization before. It’s well-known that alcohol use *worsens* depression, so nobody would use it to “self medicate”. Likewise the reference to “drugs” which is pretty much meaningless unless the drugs are specified. This is really nothing but a vague insinuation that non-Mormons use fewer anti-depressants because they walk around in a drunken, drug-induced haze. Folks should really stop tossing this idea around (even qualified with “it’s possible”).

  • I have an alternative explanation that jives with higher antidepressant use and my own observations: Mormons are *not* happier and are really less happy. Mormons are more likely to self report as happy for cultural reasons. Mormons equate happiness, status and prosperity with “blessings” and a higher probability of rising in the earthly and heavenly hierarchy. There is tremendous competition and pressure to appear “blessed” within one’s peer group, and so Mormons are conditioned to report being happy. There are likely better survey methods that would give more realistic results for Mormons.

  • President Abraham Lincoln said, “People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be!”
    Mormons could be happier because of their large families, assuming that the members are all supportive of one another. In America, individualism is touted far too much. People live happier and healthier lives who have each other’s interests at heart. Research studies have borne this out.
    Finally, my antidepressant of choice has, is and always will be, CHOCOLATE!

  • Uh, sorry, I went to hit reply, and accidentally hit the “abuse” button. I hope that doesn’t cause a problem.

    Just wanted to point out that Abraham Lincoln didn’t actually ever say that (or pretty much 99% of the things that people say on the internet that he said).

  • Happiness is relative. One thing that I have noticed as a lifetime LDS (plus forty years) is that we do not go hungry, which is important. No one should ever suffer from hunger, and the Church of Jesus Christ has a strong network of charitable food supplies for those having bad economic times.
    It is helpful to know there is a Godly organization that exists beyond the secular government that will provide help and succor in stressful times.
    Defining and combating “sins” (in quotes due to the relative nature of how people define sins) is an interesting subject when it comes to happiness. Are we better by trying to seek redemption and avoid worldly traps? That is what we believe. And that pardon from God leads to happiness, both spiritual and physical.

  • I was raised Mormon, but excommunicated when I was 18, so I have spent a lot of time sifting through these issues. What I think I have realized is that Mormons do a LOT of the right things, just for all the wrong reasons.

    I feel so lucky to have been Mormon for so many reasons (the ones the article states). I am also very glad that I was able to leave (and separate fact from fiction)

    It makes sense to me that religions of the past were able to touch on certain truths, but without technology (instruments of measure) were left to create stories that explained phenomenon. In some cases, the iconology became more important, and sometimes even replaced the original point for having created the story in the first place. (I think this is covered in that commandment about worshipping idols : ) Originally, I think that the rituals and routines of humans that were passed from one generation to the next (the basis of our religions) were meant to support our mental health and well…

  • “Research shows that some of the happiest places in the world also have the highest suicide rates,” Hunter explains.

    One of the reasons that could explain this is that it’s all just a façade. The outward appearance and actions make a person seem happy when on the inside, hidden from others, there is unfulfillment and unhappiness.

    The reasons for this unfulfillment and unhappiness is because Mormons, trying as hard as they can to achieve eternal life, know deep down that something is wrong. Mormonism teaches Mormons that eternal life can be attained by works, but again they know there is still something wrong. They are still distant from God.

    But the Scriptures teach the salvation from judgement that is purely by grace. This salvation reconciles a person to God. And my prayer is that more and more Mormons will come to understand this.

  • The stories of Mormonism were written after Galileo, the discovery of “the New World” and the Enlightenment … but before Darwin, germ theory, and other more recent discoveries. Their doctrine reflects the era in which it was imagined.

  • @Heng Shun: Well done! Both points you make are valid. I would add that, anecdotally, the happiest people I have met are Bhuddist. In my mind, this is the perfect religion because it teaches precisely the right priorities for happiness. The story of the Dalai Lama and the waitress who asked “What is the meaning of life?” exemplifies this. From what I have seen of Mormons and their religion, they have it all wrong. Here is the story:

  • Oh brother, Dave. You never stop attacking the LDS Church, do you? You are boring.

    Tell you what, my friend. If you will share with us the things you know to be true in your own heart then perhaps, perhaps, we can have a discussion. We all know the testimony of the prophets, we get that. But, can you simply be an honest (maybe we could say “happy”) person and share with us what is in your heart? I really want to know and learn from you, but it is always attack, attack, attack. I call it being dishonest and fraudulent…as you know too.

    Will leave the light on for you, David Tiffany.

    Jerry Staker

  • @Jerry Staker: Downtown Dave is just as entitled to his opinion as you are. For the record, his comment is right on the money. His reference to “salvation through works” is theologically accurate, and I happen to agree this is a fundamental source of unhappiness for Mormons. Finally, it’s presumptuous of you to assume Dave isn’t speaking from his heart. How do you know what’s in his heart? You don’t even know him.

  • And Muslims are the next “happiest” after Mormons.

    I wonder what that teaches us.

  • I realize It sounds presumptuous and from your perspective it is. Sorry about that. But, I do know him. And I was writing to him directly as you (hopefully) can tell. We go way back. I could tell you the story but it really is between David and myself if you know what I mean. You may also tell that every time something is written about the LDS Church, he comes out in attack mode; he refuses to have a discussion of what HE personally believes. He simply trashes the LDS Church, something I always (at least when I have time) call him out on. HE knows what I am talking about so I’ll leave it at that.

    You sound a bit more reasonable and maybe someone I could have a two-way discussion with some day. Thanks for your post. BTW, I’m really the ‘old guy’ out there at 55. 🙂

  • Finally, Dave, you go ahead and wear yourself out attacking and lying about the LDS Church all you want. I’m not going to call you out anymore, as I have too many other things to do. Just remember to be honest inside though, okay? When you intentionally hurt others and mislead others, in the name of Christ, it’s something I will defend against. For now, I’m signing off and will let you enjoy your work and ministry as you see fit. You know where I stand.

    Finally, since everything is about “grace” to you, and it is also extremely important to me too, check out President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s recent talk entitled “The Gift of Grace”. Now that’s a real understanding of grace the entire world should know about. I invite you to check it out, okay?

  • I like that story. If we put it together with the findings cited by Jana, we have proof that Mormons understand the meaning of life. Thanks.

  • Thanks for the article. It seemed that Elisa Hunter understood the nuances of Mormon and Utah life.

  • Dave – I have heard this view often, but I don’t understand it. By “grace alone” do you mean that a man has to do nothing to be saved? Or are there some “works” required? Works such as a declaration that I accept Christ as my Savior. That I know that I am a sinner. Aren’t those “works” that I have to do that must be added to the grace provided by the Savior for me to be saved?

  • @Jerry: As for sounding like an island, note how many others on this one blog agree with me.

    As for “Choose for your self. But obeying or choosing he good, ALWAYS yields happiness; the opposite yields unhappiness.”

    a. I am a grown man. I don’t need to “obey” and I don’t need anybody defining good and bad for me. My parents taught me, and they are far wiser and far better people than any LDS “prophet”.

    b. I will say whatever I like on this blog without apology, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not an “attack” and it’s not “evil” just because you disagree.

    c. Neither you, nor the LDS church corner the market on happiness nor right and wrong.

  • @Try: You seemed to have missed my last sentence drawing the opposite conclusion that Mormons have it all wrong. Also, if you are so happy, why is your avatar a painting of Socrates committing suicide?

  • Sorry if my remarks were insulting. I didn’t mean that.

    A) Agree, you don’t need to obey; neither do I nor anyone else. At the same time, like the law of the harvest, none of us get to choose the consequences. As for following prophets, that’s another decision you and I get to choose.

    B) I support your right, and will defend the same, for you to write anything you choose to write. There’s a big difference between folks who are deceptive and out to destroy or mislead. That would be considered to be an attack. And I do see your point too, you are entitled to your opinion that people of the LDS faith are unhappy, and that statement is not evil. I was wrong; I am sorry.

    C) You are right again. I just know without a doubt that the guidance I have been given from ancient and modern prophets has blessed my life in so many beautiful ways, genuine happiness and some occasional joy along the way.

    Hey, let’s be friends. You have some good points.

    Jerry Staker

  • Mormon’s may be the “happiest group” but I think that Jewish people make the best Comedians.. hard to beat their humorous perspective on life.

  • When you read an article like this its easy to get side tracked by unrelated information. If the article is about Mormons you shouldn’t reference data on Utah– a state that is not 100% “Mormon”, right? We would need to dig into the suicide and other items to see what percentage of those are actually Mormon (which of course there are… but we need numbers to draw accurate conclusions). The 70% number needs to be analyzed– there are Mormons of record and those that are actively engaged, as in other religions.

    That aside, after reading this article I’ve thought about why I’m a happy Mormon. Here are my top 3 reasons:

    #1 The Savior Jesus Christ- because He is the perfect role model and knows me well.
    #2 My family-because we have a sense of humor and enjoy life, we know there is a future destiny for this planet, but we enjoy our existence in the “now”.
    #3 The people. I love my ward and relationships I have. I enjoy caring and serving and working with others and…

  • As a fairly recent Mormon convert, I was drawn to the Church because of the well-being of th saints (“By their fruits ye shall know them”). Yet, during my tenure as a member, I have learned that we tend to only see those things that are “virtuous, lovely or of good report.”

    And I’m not complaining. It is great to walk into our meeting house each Sunday to greet 200 people who are looking for nice things to say to one another. Yet, I also know that I’m not getting an objective assessment from my ward family. I’m getting the benefit of an “optimism bias” that seems to be endemic to sainthood.

    One of my favorite examples is from a site called College Prowler. On this site, students rate their schools on just about everything. Guess which school compiled the #1 rankings for good looks AND intelligence? That’s right. According to the BYU students, they are the best (looking) and the brightest.


  • I once took a look at the suicide rates of all the Rocky Mountain states, and the logical initial conclusion would be that Mormonism lowers suicide rates.

  • Linking altitude and suicide is just a theory. It has not been proved. They could as easily look at the lack of iodine and the effect of fluoridated water on the thyroid. Low iodine deprives the thyroid of proper function, and fluoride wreaks havoc on it. Everyone in the Rocky Mountains should use an iodine supplement. Lugol’s Iodine is best. Iodized salt does not provide nearly enough. And they should definitely drink water that has no fluoride added to it.

  • @Milo and @Old Guy, if you check the data on the depression study, you’ll see that the religion of the responders wasn’t tracked. You’ll also see that the suicide rate among teenage girls in Utah is one of the lowest in the nation. As @Mormon Bishop stated, there are Mormons living in many other places besides Utah. Can I add another reason why Mormons are happier–they don’t troll websites attacking other people’s beliefs.

  • Fascinating. I’m particularly struck by the relationship between healthy living and overall happiness, which should be obvious but to which so much of our society (suffering from epidemics of obesity and the related diseases and illnesses) seems oblivious. Other research shows that while regular churchgoers may drink and smoke less than the general public, they are significantly more likely to overeat and make poor food choices. One study found that those who attend church services at least once a week are 50% more likely to be clinically obese than those who do not. One good way to begin producing congregations of happier people is to begin putting emphasis on the importance of a healthy lifestyle.

  • Old Guy: Good points.
    The report wasn’t clear how, or if, the Gallup poll corrected for the ‘self report’ problem, and the tendency of depressed people to leave church. In my experience, evangelicals (and I would particularly include Mormons in this) see ‘happiness’ as an important benefit to belonging to the faith, and promises of happiness are a significant part of evangelism (see Jerry’s comment below). Its common knowledge that evangelical churches often don’t know what to do with sad/Depressed people, and they end up feeling unwelcome, or worse, spiritually defective, and they leave.

    Jana’s mention of depression is important, because I really fear that misinterpreting studies like the gallup study can harm and drive Depressive people away, by causing victims of Depression to blame their unhappiness on what must be a spiritual failing of theirs. I appreciate my mainline church because its very OK for me to admit when I’m down and everything isn’t great in life right…

  • On the same hand, you’re making quite a lot of assumptions about Mormons based on your personal opinions and biases. The article doesn’t claim other people can’t be happy–I have no doubt there are people happy with all varieties of lifestyles, it just says that Latter-day Saints are some of the happiest people overall.
    It is slightly pathetic to me that so many people feel inclined to attack Mormons when they do more good in the world than most people. I won’t call it “jealousy” but it does seem to reflect inexplicable bitterness toward a very good people, which is ironic since Mormons are considered the ones who are “prejudiced” or “intolerant.”
    Not that you care about me personally (clearly) but I love my fellow man no matter what faith (or lack thereof) and think I am happier than most people because I choose to be. I don’t complain about my life, I focus on the good.
    You paint with a broad brush, Downtown Dave. You think every single Mormon is unhappy and on…

  • I completely second your responses to this article, Jerry. A few of these people are simply determined to create contention wherever they go. They claim (or perhaps truly believe) they are merely “pointing out” their observations about Mormons but they seem to be sharing quite a few biases and skewed perceptions opposed to actual facts or truth. It’s irritating, but if attempting to make others miserable makes them happy then that reveals more about their character than anything else.

  • On, the other hand, there’s my own first-hand observation and information from Mormons: Mormons aren’t particularly happy, and, in fact, are often unhappy. They are, however, trained from birth to say they are happy and act like they are.

    As for trolling…. well, here you are.

  • It’s been a while since I took a close look at those two old chestnuts: Mormons have a high suicide rate, and take a lot of antidepressants. The latter was based on numbers supplied by a mail-order pharmacy I’d never heard of. Number two was Maine, which has dang few Mormons but a similar rural environment where folks might find it convent to use mail order. A more detailed analysis of Utah suicide revealed inactive LDS had a higher rate than active members, and non-LDS a much higher rate than either. In short, active LDS suicide rates were lower than the national average, and quite a bit lower than the Rocky Mountain west. Having spent most of my adult life on one coast or the other, I found it striking the stigma still attached to suicide, which led families to go to great lengths to get a death put down as anything but suicide. In sum, evidence again that critics often distort, dissemble and even deceive to put the LDS church in a bad light.

  • E. Lots, seems like I read that you don’t need an iodine supplement if you eat a normal amount of dairy products. The cows diet is managed so they’re not deficient, so it’s in the milk –that requires careful feeding, since today’s dairy cows produce a LOT of milk.

  • Hi Heng!

    1) I am not sure how familiar you are with statistics, but with a population sample this large, these differences are highly statistically significant. The Gallup researchers themselves stated these differences are statistically significant even after controlling for age, gender, race and ethnicity, region and state of the
    country, socioeconomic status, marital status, and child-bearing status.

    2)Good point about Buddhists and Hindus. You should write to Gallup and ask that they be included as a category next time. Buddhists and Hindus would be included in the category of “Other, Non-Christian,” but it doesn’t purely represent either faith as other small faiths would fall into that category as well. The study covers Muslims, Catholics, Non-catholic Christians, Mormons, Jews, Atheists/ agnostic/ non religious….so Buddhists/ Hindus may be the biggest groups represented in the “Other Non-Christian Category”….but I think they should be added none the less.

  • I think you are assuming that they are doing what YOU spend your time doing. More than likley, a huge no. I am LDS, have three brothers and a father who are also LDS. Not one of them is into porn, or prozac.

  • YOur explanation is comical. Speak for yourself. The LDS friends I have are not depressed, well educated and are happy families. I am sure you can find some that are not, obviously, but the majority of all my associates are. Pressure to feel blessed?? HA HA Now, seriously we are all laughing over this one. Maybe being old has also maed you a little miserable too.

  • It is quite transparent. People who need to belittle and bash others, are unhappy themselves and do it to make themselves feel better.

  • You’re wrong. Altitude makes people happier. Studies show that New Yorkers are the happiest people in the world because of their high altitude.

  • The future destiny of our planet is to be cleansed by fire in the second coming and become the Celestial Kingdom, or the highest degree of glory we can attain

  • If they are all wrong then sure odd how they do so much right?! Mormonism teaches tolerance and peace and fr one to view life with a more spiritual life, like Buddha to see the sick and the needy and to serve them. Its no wonder they are ranked so highly when it comes to generosity and kindness.

  • View life with a more spiritual eye, just a small correction as I accidentally copied the word life and somehow pasted it over eye.

  • I think a big reason that the mormon religion is so happy is because of the teachings. In the mormon religion we are taught that death is just a mere comma, not an exclamation point and that it is just a part of the “plan of salvation” or “plan of happiness” Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father have provided for us. There is more than just heaven and hell after death. The plan of salvation says of a spirit world after death including Spirit Paradise and Spirit Prison which can be compared to heaven and hell. But dont think of Spirit Prison or hell as a bad thing for it is actually more like a school than a bad place and once you are in spirit prison you are not stuck. A person in spirit prison will only be held there until The resurrection (second coming) and The final Judgement, In which Jesus is our Judge and our ‘defense attorney’ as you could say. From this there are 4 Glories. The Celestial Kingdom, Which is of the glory of the sun, The Terrestial Kingdom, which is of the glory of the moon, The Telestial Kingdom, which is of the glory of the stars, and finally outer darkness. Before we came to earth, we chose God’s plan and we are rewarded with a body and agency for that. 1/3 of the multitude chose lucifer(satan)’s plan and were cast to outer darkness. The only person we know of on earth that will be sent to outer darkness is Kane, who is the son of perdition. In this plan, we can have an idea of where we are going after the final judgement. E-mail me: [email protected] for more. I would love to have a further discussion with anyone about this.

  • My prayer, as a Mormon, is that those who say that “Mormonism teaches Mormons that eternal life can be attained by works” ALONE will come to understand that we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God took upon himself the sins of every one who ever lived or ever will live, by suffering incomprehensible agony in Gethsemane and on the Cross and paid the price, which we could not do ourselves, therefore saving us by His grace, so that if we do our part by repenting of our sins and keeping the commandments and loving and helping one another, we will one day live with them in heaven.

  • Just because alcohol is a “downer” doesn’t mean that it isn’t used to drown out troubles. It’s pretty commonly accepted that people use alcohol to moderate their moods or to forget for awhile.