Monday, 3 October 2011

Religion as happiness insurance?

A new column at looks at data on religion and life satisfaction from across the globe and argues that it might just be insurance for the unhappy. The column by Bruno S Frey and Jana Gallus notes that the happiness research leaves no doubt that religious people are happier than their contemporaries. And the causality runs from religion to happiness, but this raises a puzzle: if religion creates happiness, why are people living in those countries with the highest life satisfaction increasingly turning their back on religion? Frey and Gallus write,
The data unmistakably reveals a clear trend. A country’s economic situation critically influences its citizen's religiousness. People living under harsh conditions with low per-capita income and life satisfaction are much more likely to be religious. Religiousness will then increase their life satisfaction. In fact, religion can be seen as a sort of "insurance". Their belief at least partly helps people cope with difficult life situations. Also, religion offers supportive and integrative institutions, which accompany their members in difficult times. Herein, the social contacts that churches help establish and foster are crucial. Happiness research shows that interaction with others is of utmost importance for subjective wellbeing. As Diener et al. (2011) demonstrate, these results hold for all major religions – for Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims alike.
The punchline?
The combination of facts allows the following conclusions to be drawn:
  • Churches tend to lose members during stable and economically prosperous times.
  • They stand to gain members notably when economic, political, and other societal conditions are harsh.
The comparative advantage of churches therefore consists in providing support and stability in times of insecurity – a function that neither the economy nor the state fulfil. This applies especially to the psychological strain under which many people nowadays suffer. In his book "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science", Richard Layard, an English happiness researcher who is also member of the Upper House, forcefully argues that one of the central problems of modern life consists in the fact that many individuals are no longer able to orient themselves in the economy and in society at large. In this respect, churches can fulfil an important function.
The column also contains the following note:
Editors' note: A similar article was published on Oekonomenstimme. Sept. 20, 2011
Hmmmm ............
  • References:Diener, Ed, Louis Tay, and David G Myers (2011), “The Religion Paradox: If Religion Makes People Happy, Why Are So Many Dropping Out?”, Journal of Personality and Social Pysychology, 101(2):354-365.
  • Layard, Richard (2005), Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Penguin Books.

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