Religion and Happiness

Dear Reader, We are very appreciative for the opportunity to be part of your research team for your project. Here we provide you with information pertaining to the topic you've requested. Religion and happiness alone are very complex topics due to the ambiguity of the term themselves but we have managed to find a lot of research and studies regarding the relation these two terms have. We consider important to mention that we found different studies proving two different sides of the question; religion as a source of happiness and spirituality in association to happiness. It is crucial for you to understand that there will not be a definite and concise answer to the question; it is a relative issue and it is mostly based on opinion. Nonetheless, we have gathered a lot of useful information that we hope will help you to better understand the topic and general theme of our findings.


Oxford Dictionary definitions:
Happy: Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment1
Religion: The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods2
Spiritual: Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things3

It is not useful to give these words a short and concrete definition because they are abstract and complex themes and ways of life. Religion, as well as happiness, spirituality and well-being are defined by oneself and these words mean something different for each individual. Through the course of our research we are going to attempt to give broader definitions to these terms, not only in the sense of explanation but rather through the use and effects upon daily life.

In Chapter one of a thesis done by a student in the Masters of Arts in Psychology at Kean University, they attempt to give a more complete definition of each term in relation to one another.

  • Religion: Is the commitment to a specific religious faith and doctrine; which includes rituals like house of worship and identifying oneself as part of a community.
  • Spirituality: Is a set of ideas and practices of religious values while rejecting a religious doctrine. It focuses on oneself.
  • Happiness: Is having life satisfaction while having present positive affect and absenting negative.

Religion and Spirituality have similar overlapping characteristics as well as some differences. It is implied that a religious person will have spirituality because religion comes with a set of beliefs and practices that are spiritual. However, when it comes to spirituality it does not necessarily derive from religion.4

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi argues that “happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random choice. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person”.5

Relationship Between Religion and Psychology

Sara Ahmed argues that religion may be used in order to regulate manners and emotions. Religion has the ability to impose social restraints upon individuals. Without the conflict between good versus evil and pain versus pleasure principles she implies we would no longer live conserved lives thus rendering our happiness as individuals.

Cause and Effect of Religion

Michael Argyle makes reference to three main characteristics of religion that have positive effects on happiness. These include: Social Support, Closeness with God and Existential certainty which through religious phenomena tend to increase happiness, such as praying and/or pilgrimage.
He argues that the sense of social support provided through religious organizations, such as Church, allows individuals to feel a sense of community. The feeling of happiness is often strengthened with older people, those with poor health and singles because these are groups of individuals who heavily rely on this social support to maintain a sense of belonging. Closeness with God likewise allows individuals to feel a relationship with God similar to those built with humans. This transcendental factors allows a peace with God thus leading to the last point of argument. A main conflict within oneself is the uncertainty of life, fear of death may lead to feelings of anxiety, religion takes upon an optimistic approach to reduce these anxieties. Existential Certainty gives individuals an after-life promise which allows for optimism and control within people. People can live more satisfying lives knowing there is a positive and negative reinforcement to their actions.6

Sigmund Freud

Freud was one of the first to produce theories on aspects of religion and beliefs. He took an approach based on clinical studies, based on primitive religion by studying the history and origins. Much of Freud’s work was related to the Oedipus complex, in which he believes young boys have a sense of jealousy towards their fathers because of their sexual desires toward their mothers. The directly makes reference to this issues regarding Totemic Religion mentioned in Freud’s book Totem and Taboo. This is where out of jealousy brothers would kill and eat their father in hopes of claiming the women of the village. Feelings of guilt would overtake the individuals and they would participate in sacrificing of totem animals rather to symbolize the father and Gods.

“Totemic religion arose from the filial sense of guilt, in an attempt to allay that feeling and to appease the father by deferred obedience to him. All later religions are seen to be attempts at solving the same problem. “ (180)7

Other psychologists, like Hertel and Dunahue in 1995, investigated other studies in relation to these theories. They had surveyed 3,400 members of families and concluded that especially with children, God was perceived as a loving-parental figure versus the generalized authoritative figure.

Ullman in 1982 concluded that it was common among converts to have absent fathers or poor relations with their parents compared to others. This favors the theories introduced in the father-projection theory which states our personal relationship with God is dependent on our relation to our physical father. Ultimately, this argues that God is nothing but an exalted define father. Freud agreed Religion helps deal with suffering and sense of powerlessness as positive effects, which influence civilization and culture. By building social bonds, moral rules, and by protecting the weak we are able to restrain our aggression toward one another. But, Freud perceived Religion in a cultural evolution sense, and believed as we reached a rational age of Science we would adapt these theories and find a more scientific approach to handle our aggression. (Argyle)

Phenomenology of Happiness

Happiness may not have one specific object, but rather have several. This can be studied in regards to the relationship between the mind and body, rather than referring to happiness in direct correlation to religion it can take a deterministic approach while observing the interactions between several objects that bring joy. It is not the object themselves that bring upon feelings of joy, but rather the experiences resulting from subject and objects. Philosophers refer to objects acquiring value through the contact with bodies, and thus are dependant on the individuals personal reflections and associations.

For Spinoza, “We call a thing good which contributes to the preservation of our being, and we call a thing evil if it is an obstacle to the preservation of our being: that is to say, a thing is called by us good or evil as it increases or diminishes, helps or restrains, our power of action”8

Ed Diener

Ed Diener, a recognized American Harvard psychologist, professor and author, also known as Dr. Happiness defines happiness as a subjective well-being; regarding how people evaluate themselves and perceive their lives. These evaluations include people’s emotional reactions to specific situations through moods and feelings. Also, the way they look and judge their life overall based on life satisfactions including factors that may be internal or external such as work and family relationships. The presence of positive affects and the absent of negative ones are key to having a subjective well-being.10. Diener has done a lot of work on religion/spirituality and happiness. Here, we will mention different studies he has done that provide diverse and useful material.

Diener and colleagues state "The nature of happiness has been been defined in a uniform way. Happiness can mean pleasure, life satisfaction, position emotions, a meaningful life, or a feeling of contentment"11

Diener's book

Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Chapter 7: Religion, Spirituality, and Happiness. In this chapter of the book, Ed Diener and his son share their thoughts, opinions and reasoning as to why religious people are happier. They base their knowledge on different research studies all around the world. However, they say that studies have shown small but significant benefits in religion. Religious people are more likely to stay away from drugs and crimes, to get a job and make money which results in longer and healthier lives. Although researchers define being religious in various ways, the vast majority of studies conclude religious people report being happier than non-religious people. This shows that it does not matter which each religion each individual identifies with, but rather the concept and belief of religion that lead to overall happiness. Ed diener is a senior member of the Gallup Organization. A survey in USA showed that people who believed in a God and afterlife were most likely to be satisfied with their lives. Not all religions perceive happiness in the same ways, different religions have different cultural aspects and beliefs that influence their practices. Religious rituals and holidays including fancy clothes, singing, and activities out of the regular day translate to feelings of well-being. Spiritual experience can be so profound and joyful that even non-religious people seek it through non-religious means. For example some people like taking LSD or hallucinogens mushrooms or other drugs to try to activate their spiritual experience and be happy at least momentarily.12

Gallup World Poll survey

In a study of the Gallup World Poll they found that the relationship between religion and happiness also depends on where people live. The author mentions a study lead by Diener which studies the data from the 2005-2009 Gallup World Poll in a survey to more than 150 countries with questions about religion, life satisfaction, respect, social support, positive and negative feelings. This was the first study done to analyze the relationship between religion and happiness. Diener concludes that, "circumstances predict religiousness”. He claims that difficult circumstances lead to becoming religious. However, the survey gave proof that in religious societies, religious people claim to be happier but in secular societies, it’s either the opposite or everybody is as happy. It also seems to be that religion has a more positive correlation with happiness in poor countries and under stress than in first world countries where order and peace is usually the norm. Diener assured that, “globally, 68 percent of people surveyed said that they were religious”.13

These following charts are extracted from the Gallup studies on Religion and Happiness in United States:


Interview with Diener

In this interview, Dr. Diener states that studies have shown religious people are generally happier. However, he mentions that not all religions lead to happiness. He focuses on finding out what are the “active ingredients” in religion that cause an increase in subjective well-being. One of the key ingredients he mentions is positive spirituality and positive emotions that would help us stop worrying so much about ourselves and connect to things greater than ourselves. Also the support of other like-minded individuals increase subjective well being. Another influence of religion is that it gives people meaning to life and optimism for an afterlife. Diener mentions that having a religion with guidelines, moral laws and rules to live by will increase happiness too. Religion also gives answers to large questions like, why is there evil in the world. Diener says his studies has lead him to conclude that people usually turn to religion when they are going through hard times; however, when conditions are going well, less people in a nation continue to be religious. Even then, religious people still report higher feelings of positive emotions.14

Religious Concepts of Happiness

Here is some information on what specific Religions have to say about happiness and their ways of achieving it. Each Religion has their way of explaining why if followed correctly, people will find happiness in their life.


The Nobel Qur'an acknowledges happiness as an objective of every human being. The Qur'an perceives happiness to be attained by internal means, one may have many bounties of the outer world but ultimately our physical life is only a test of our mental capacities as an individual. Even with material success such as power, money, and fame; this will not guarantee true happiness within. Happiness is not limited to material prosperity, but also must be established through non-material aspects as well. The Qur'an makes several mentions to the guidelines that must be followed in order to achieve happiness for the body and soul, in this world and in the afterworld. Muslims are urged to perform prayers, attend pilgrimage in order to live a fulfilled life as these meet our biological needs and allow ourselves to feel as part of a community of others of like minded traits.

Allah (Peace Be Upon Him) states: "Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer - We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do." (The Qur'an, 16:97)

The Qur'an emphasizes that this world is merely just a a means of attaining the joys of the afterworld. Therefore, one must live a peaceful life by following the guidelines set forth in order to achieve the bounties beyond the physical world. Happiness is based on the fulfillment of living a righteous life, as that is the only way to attain peace in the afterworld.
Allah (Peace Be Upon Him) states: "little is the enjoyment of the life of this world as compared with the Hereafter." (The Qur'an, 9:38)

Allah (Peace Be Upon Him) states: "To those who do good, there is good in this world, and the Home of the Hereafter is even better and excellent indeed is the Home of the righteous" (The Qur'an 16:30)


Christianity is the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and it's beliefs. Christians believe that happiness is attained in life after death with God in heaven. But in order to get to heaven they must first do things here on earth that can increase their chances of getting into heaven. Things that will not only lead them to the gates of heaven but also keep them happy and satisfied in their life on earth. Jesus says that worldly things are but short

The Bible emphasizes that if Christians want to live a happy life they must become more religious and spiritual. Happiness is attained when one does what God wants them to do, through what is instructed in the bible. The bible acts like the book of instructions, educating us on how one can be more spiritual but also guiding one on their spiritual journey. Furthermore, the bible outlines that people who are religious tend to be more content in life. Insecurity, anxiety, and worries
The Bible states the following things on happiness:

"These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

"Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord." (Psalm 105:3)

"You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence." (Acts 2:28)

"If you wish to be perfect, sell what you have and give to poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21)

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God."(Ephesians 2:8)


Judaism is the religious faith and set of practices shared by the Jewish people. The Torah teaches that it is a mitzvah (a precept or commandment) to be happy and therefore must be possible to achieve it. Judaism has many different approaches to being genuinely happy, which is grounded in the appreciation of the opportunities within life itself and knowing that each moment of life can be infused with meaning and used to build a relationship with God and knowing our goals in life. Simcha (happiness, and joy) means to celebrate life in gratitude for it's gifts15.

The Torah mentions the following things on happiness:

"I command you today to love YHVH your God and to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments, His decrees and His civil laws so that you may live and that you may increase and YHVH your God will bless you in the land into which you are coming to take as a possession". (Deuteronomy, 30:16)

“I was searching for the YHVH, and he gave ear to my voice, and made me free from all my fears”. (Psalms 34:4)

“The Divine Spirit does not reside in any except the joyful heart”. (The Talmud quote)

(YHVH refers to God's Holy name)


Buddhism central theme is based on attaining happiness. This religion was invented by a man named Siddhartha Gautama in India, under a Budhi tree. Buddhists believe that in order to attain happiness, one must reach enlightenment, also called the middle path. Buddhism is not monotheistic or polytheistic. It does not believe in any existence of God, rather, it focuses on the path towards Enlightenment16. Buddhist prepare for Enlightenment by following the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Jewel and Five Precepts, the Three Characteristics of Existence, the Dependant Origination, Karma and Intention, and Samsara and Nirvana17. Furthermore, Buddhism understands life as Samsara, meaning rebirth, and the main aim of Buddhism is to break free from Samsara and enter a new level called Nirvana. Nirvana is reached during Enlightenment. Nirvana is the ultimate destination to happiness, since it means unbinding, unbinding from the burning passion of desire, jealousy, and ignorance. Once these are overcome, a state of bliss is achieved and there no longer exist the cycle of birth and death. One can then live in a state of peace and harmony18.

Religion Promoting a Better Life


Photo of Arthur C. Brooks19

Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America- And How We Can Get More of it

This is a book written by Arthur C. Brooks who based on his findings and research, proposes that happiness is linked to faith, charity, hard work, optimism, and individual liberty. His book is split into two parts; the first part talks about the culture of happiness, which focuses on happiness being obtained through going to church and marriage, while the second part talks about the economics of happiness, which focuses on the political aspect of happiness such as a stable job, good income, and focusing on whether conservatives, or liberals, are more happier. First, he proposes that religious people are more happier than secularists. This is because secularism relies on the state to solve problems, and relying on security promotes unhappiness. Furthermore, in the second part of the book, he mentions the contrary, where he says that some people obtain happiness through materialistic things such as money, their job, and their house. However, he believes that religion is the ultimate key to happiness and that materialistic things are only but temporary.20
He says, "Americans who attend church once or more per week are 82% happier than those who do not". He says that "people who donate are 43% more likely to be happier than non-givers and 25% more likely to have excellent or good health". He also goes on to mention that conservatives tend to be twice as happy as liberals.21

Synagogue Boosts Happiness? Temple Attendance, Well-Being Linked In New Study Of Jews

Two new studies have shown that Jews who attend synagogues regularly and pray often report slightly higher overall well-being than Jews who do not.
These two studies were done at Baylor University which showed Israeli Jewish adults who attend synagogue regularly, pray often, and consider themselves religious are significantly healthier and happier than their non-religious counterparts. They report greater satisfaction with life22.

Dr. Jeff Levin, the study author, looked at data from recent international surveys about religious attendance and happiness. A study published in ‘Psychology of Religion and Spirituality’ dealt with a sample of 1,849 Israeli Jewish adults, and another published in the ‘Journal of Happiness Studies’, involved a sample of 991. Dr. Levin mentions that social support offered by a religious community, religious messages that inspire optimism and good behavior, and positive emotions that can come from having a regular routine, points to a few possibilities that explains the link between synagogue-going and well-being23 .

Religion: A Route to True Happiness

In her article, Sally gives a thorough analysis of a speech "Positive Psychology:The Science of Happiness", given by Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College. Sanderson credits the feeling of happiness through religion as it gives people a sense of belonging. Being smart, having lots of money, having children; none of these things makes you happier. What makes us happy is the sense that we are looking after one another. As mentioned previously on this page, Sanderson also accredits happiness to the sharing of the same mind-set. The mind-set being that there is an afterlife and that a higher power is looking after us and the decisions we make.
"Religion is about helping other people and having others look after you".24


For Spinoza, “We call a thing good which contributes to the preservation of our being, and we call a thing evil if it is an obstacle to the preservation of our being: that is to say, a thing is called by us good or evil as it increases or diminishes, helps or restrains, our power of action” ([1677] 2001: 170). Therefore, one may define happiness on a more spiritual and empirical level as we seek to determine and attend to the objects at the source of our joy.25

Spirituality in Children

Psychologist Mark Holder at the University of British Columbia in Canada, collected in 2008, the first research showing the positive effect spirituality has on children. He and his colleagues explained the results by emphasizing the connection between spirituality and concepts like hope and personal meaning. Further research concluded that although spirituality increases children’s happiness, religion has no effect. Children living their lives with meaning and values were happier but religious practices did not have an effect. The author also mentions that previous research showed the link between religion and well-behaved but not necessarily happiness.26

Spirituality in teenagers

Dr. Michael Yi and Sian Cotton did a research at the University of Cincinnati where they show the relation between spirituality and happiness among teenagers. The research proved that spirituality helps all young people deal with life’s challenges and stresses. Dr. Yi studied healthy and sick teenagers and he saw that in both cases spirituality was a major factor of well-being and also a negative stimulus for depression.27

Videos of the Significance of Religion on Happiness


Video #1: "Matthieu Ricard: Habits of Happiness".
All of our actions are intended to achieve happiness. There is diversity in the definition of happiness worldwide, but in order to achieve it we must define happiness. Pleasure often is associated with happiness but this is strictly dependent on situational factors, which are able to fluctuate, and therefore, true happiness is never achieved.
Happiness can be defined as a state of well being which is not just based on pleasure, but rather a state of fulfillment, which is able to overrule feelings of sorrow.
Succeeding in our quest for happiness we typically seek external factors, materialistic aspects that cannot be controlled. Inner conditions of happiness may be easier to maintain, such as serenity, personal freedom, inner strength and confidence. Once an individual has balanced and nurtured their internal conditions, a happier state of mind can be projected into our external conditions.

Video #2: "Lessons Taught by Religion".
Botton introduces an alternative to religion and typical atheism by viewing the world in a spiritual sense. Combining the positive factors of religion but detaching them from stereotypical concepts related to religion. Religion sets into perspective many flaws of humanity, Botton mentions some of the ideas religion brings forth to confront human flaws. Education is used to build better and nobler individuals, which was originally brought forth through the Church powers to guide morality. English literature was used to replace biblical scripture with ones of culture to teach similar lessons and themes of life. All religions began as a guide to people to introduce moral ways of life. Much of the lessons taught by religion are based on repetition, by praying everyday we may become more spiritually connected with ourselves and be reminded of our significance to society. Rituals are also used to set things into perspective, such as Buddhists who celebrate the moon in the festival of Tsukimi , this forces to conceptualize themes within our life. The problem with this in modern society is people are bored by these repeated concepts. Botton urges we do not reject the lessons taught by religion, as they are highly effective in spreading ideas. Religion teaches education, art as truths of the mind, confronts the dangers of isolation and using physical acts to back up philosophical ideas. One must admire the institutionalized way religion works towards positive changes within people by collaborating and being multi-national. There is something to learn from the ways in which religion is used to spread ideas although not everyone may agree with the ways in which these lessons are being taught.

Video #3: "Does Religion Make You a Happier Person?"
HuffPost Live's Host, Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, speaks with a panel of religious experts such as Rev. Paul Rausenbush, David G. Myers, who is a social psychologist at Hope College, and Hidaya Nawee, who is a 19 year old blogger. They discuss the new findings that show people with spiritual beliefs are happier than those without them. David Myers backs up this notion with empirical evidence saying, “Here in the U.S., of those who are not at all religiously engaged, 27 percent have said they're very happy … compared to 48 percent who are engaged in religious activities or worship more than once a week”. He mentions that there are many social psychologists that study what is called ‘Terror Management’, which is our awareness of our own mortality and the terrible things that can happen to us, but people who are religious have this hope that in the end everything will be well and things will work out just fine. Hidaya Nawee, who was one of the members on the panel during this live interview, has a physical disability. She mentions that it was due the community’s support and her faith in God which helped her raise up and motivated her to achieve things in life, since she knew that no matter what, she could always fall back on God.
Myers also talks about the Gallup research that took place where people around the world were asked whether they thought religion was important to them. He concluded that poorer countries were less happy than first-world countries. Additionally, he also mentions that people who do not identify with any religions, meaning, they are not Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, etc., but rather have their own sense of spirituality within them, can also be happy. He says, “Religion which is spirituality practiced in communities and with a faith tradition is a means in offering those things as a correlation between religious engagement and subjective well-being”. Furthermore, Rev. Paul Rausenbush mentions that just because some people are not religious does not mean that they are doomed, it just means that they find different ways in attaining happiness. The interview ends with a quote by Elizabeth Gilbert, “Success isn’t just about what you accomplish in your life. It’s about what you inspire others to do”. This quote tied into the idea that even though religion is a major contributor in happiness, a sense of community is equally important in proving one with happiness.

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