Researchers have wondered for a long time why those who are religious tend to be happier than those who are not. I’m sure I’m not the first to figure this out, but I think I have the answer and some analysis.
So, happiness researchers have long known that one thing correlates with happiness more than any other: Gratitude.
In study after study, they’ve found that people who are appreciative of what they have tend to be happier than those who think the world owes them more, or that they’ve been somehow shorted by life.
Well, isn’t this precisely what religion teaches? The big ones do this in a number of ways:
- You’re lucky that God created you
- You’re lucky that you didn’t die in an act of God today (tornado, flood, etc.)
- You’re lucky you have food to eat
- You’re lucky that Jesus died for your sins (Christian)
- You’re lucky that Mohamed brought the message (Islam)
- You’re lucky God spared you from the great flood (Judaism)
So you basically have a billions of people sitting at dinner tables, with their extremely difficult lives, clasping hands with their religious family members and giving thanks for all these things.
Thanks for the food. Thanks for Jesus’ sacrifice. Thanks for Aunt Margie healing from pneumonia. Thanks for saving one of the kids who died in that house fire down the street.
So much thankfulness.
This, more than anything, is the reason religious people are happier than those who are not religious.
The next question
Naturally, that raises the question of whether this is a good thing or not. We know people being happy is good, but is it ok to manufacture it in this way?
As an atheist it seems somewhat grotesque to have humans groveling at the feet of a non-existent being, and it’s grotesque for a simple reason:
When the reason for the suffering is pitched and swallowed as supernatural, it dissuades the sufferers from asking questions.
Religion, on this view, basically becomes a statement of:
Yes, your lives are pitiful, but you should feel guilty and thankful that you even have what you do have. This is God’s world, afterall, so if he wipes out your entire town in a flood, or kills your entire family in a fire, you should give thanks to him that same evening that he chose to spare your life.
That’s powerful, and it’s the same lesson being learned by happiness researchers. Those that can be happy with the least are the most happy.
A quote that captures this well goes like this:
Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.
Indeed. It’s a great point.
The distinction to me is how one arrives there. I think the better way is through modern education, a deep understanding of how the world works, and the knowledge that action can (and should) be taken to improve one’s position.
I think most religious in the world who are suffering greatly believe that their suffering is just part of their existence, and that it’s almost…impolite to try overly hard to improve their position in life.
It’s as if the suffering is part of appreciating what God has given you. It basically justifies—and even celebrates—the suffering in the world, and it does so on the grounds that it’s looked upon favorably by God.
And that’s the part I object to.
So while religious people might be happier, I think this is achieved through a fog of deception and ignorance that ultimately benefits those who keep them in in positions where they will suffer.
If we, for example, pumped a euphoria-producing gas into coal mines where people work 20-hour shifts with no breaks, and then took surveys on worker happiness, we’d no-doubt find that coal miners are happier than gardeners and doctors.
But this would be ignoring two key facts:
- the happiness induced by the gas is artificial, and
- people should not have to work like this in coal mines
We should do the same with religion and happiness.
Let’s identify and correct the conditions that people are happy despite of being in, and simultaneously dismantle the false happiness being injected by religion.
This is the only way that we can create a sustainable contentment that does not rely on the integrity of the illusion.