Are Religious People Happier?

This page is meant to provide the reader with access to a variety of sources that attempt to understand the trends between religion and happiness. The sources here are highly controversial amongst themselves, some reaching very different conclusions than others. The sources tackle the underlying patterns between religious and non-religious people with regards to their states of well being, substance abuse, life expectancy, and other indicators of success or happiness. For clarity, the degree to which these groups are religious (or not) are stated within the summaries of each source.

Operational Definitions

Religion contains a set of rules or notions for people to follow, which often includes a code of behavior, social conduct and suggested morals that can influence the way they lead their life. Being religious implies having faith in supernatural or superhuman entities (or entity) that set one's belief system in the way they view the world. Religious people are often said to be observant, meaning they practice their belief through prayer, worship, ritual or other forms of devotion.

Wolframalpha (n.d.). Religion Definition. Retrieved from
Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary (11th ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
religion. (n.d.). Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved March 23, 2014, from website:

The state of contentment, joy or pleasure.
  • since these things are hard to measure it is necessary to assume that those who find themselves to be happy:
    • have a tendency to be more optimistic
    • are less likely to do things that can be a product of depression, i.e. substance abuse, criminal acts, suicide

Note: This is not to say that happy people do not experience these things; however, for the sake of probability, one can assume that people who are not happy are more likely to engage in the aforementioned behaviors. Therefore for the purposes of this annotated bibliography, happiness will be interchangeable with a longer life expectancy and general state of well being.


It is necessary to mention that the central pillar of general religions asks its believers to have faith in a higher power or powers. For this reason, the bibliography will provide sources that discuss whether or not it is this faith that leads to happiness, rather than any altruistic or supernatural mechanisms themselves, if existent, as they cannot be scientifically proven today.

Sense of Identity

Children as a Source of Religious Identity

Gallagher, S. K. (2007). Children as religious resources: The role of children in the social re-formation of class, culture, and religious identity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47 (2), 169-183, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2007.00349.x

Religion is often thought to be a purification system and structure. As children are often associated with purity, innocence, truth, and goodness; it would only make sense for children to represent a religious identity. In this way, some may use their children as a way to express their religiosity. The involvement of children in sermons, and the insight into their ways of thinking about religion and their views on higher beings allows for adults to see religion in a more one dimensional view, where there are no adult complications and struggles, and to see the good in religion that one may lose as they grow up. Religious institutions often hold many children activities where they learn about a belief and faith, but more importantly are encouraged to discuss and share opinions while carrying out values, while also being mindful and accepting of others’ thoughts and ways. Through one’s children partaking in community religious activities, a reinforcement of the importance that community volunteering is, instilling religious values of compassion and generosity. Through the use and involvement of children in religion, adults may try to change a diminishing sense of religious identity.

Belief in God Providing Meaning and Purpose in Life

Cranney, S (2013). Do People Who Believe in God Report More Meaning In Their Lives? The Existential Effects of Belief. Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion 52 (3), doi: 10.1111/jssr.12046.x

A statistical approach is taken to studying the effect of religious belief, specifically the belief in a higher power, on giving meaning to life. The researcher measures responses to the statement “In my opinion, life does not serve any purpose.” This statement, the researcher feels, optimally qualifies the definition of meaning by asking the respondent how much they agree with this existential question. The researcher asks the respondents to select whether they strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement and identify themselves as non-believers, believers with some doubts, those who believe in a higher power with some questioning, and those who surely believe. Comparing results from surveys conducted in 1998 and 2008, it was found that sure believers were highly likely to respond with strong disagreement to the statement (38% in 1998, and 37% in 2008, respectively). The conclusion is that those who surely believe report a higher sense of purpose in life and more meaning than to those who do not believe, or who question their beliefs.

Distress in Believers and Non-Believers

Weber, S., Pargament, K., Kunik, M., Lomax, J., Stanley, M. (March 2012). Psychological Distress Among Religious Nonbelievers: A Systematic Review. Journal of Religion and Health, 51(1), 72-86, doi: 10.1007/s10943-011-9541-1

An individual’s psychological health is generally associated with one’s belief system. Should an individual be an atheist or an agnostic, it is said that these individuals feel greater forms of distress. Studies showed that non-believers felt more anger towards a god than believers, and that they found it more difficult to forgive. This is because it was found that the non-believers at some point, affiliated with a religion. It was also found that perspectives on death (such as guilt for leaving a reliant behind) caused death anxiety to be higher among atheists.

Likewise, other tests and studies conducted to measure depression and anxiety came back with results where atheists felt indifferent towards death, leaving them feeling less anxious. Studies also found that religious non-believers coped just as well as believers with old age, dealing with losses, striving for a purpose, and with positive self-interest. Studies show that non-believers were just as spiritually and psychologically healthy as their counterparts, which was measured by their sense of awe, purpose in life, and awareness of tragedy. Coping mechanisms of atheists are seen to be just as helpful as the coping mechanism used by religious believers.

Non-believers are viewed more negatively in comparison to believers, which can cause distress because of negative attitudes from society to specific groups. Religious believers are evaluated more highly than non-believers, even when the atheists were behaving more positively (being generous and helping others) compared to Christians behaving negatively (ignoring, cheating, or refusing to help others). Studies showed that people perceived atheists less favourably than Christians with regards to morality, education, social status, political views, parenting, satisfaction in life, and one’s control over their life. A nationwide telephone survey also found that a large number of Americans would disapprove of their children marrying atheists. All these findings of perception of non-believers are seen as causes of psychological distress among non-believers.

The work of Pargament et al. made a dynamic model for understanding psychological struggles of religious believers and may be a useful starting point for the struggles among non-believers. This approach divides spiritual struggles into three categories:
1) Interpersonal struggles – Non-believers must learn to live, work, and cooperate with others who have religious beliefs. The struggles non-believers face is achieving cooperative equality by believers. This is hard to do when negative outlooks are had on non-believers by others.
2) Intrapsychic struggles – Believers may doubt the existence of God or the validity of religious claims, just as non-believers may doubt their decision to live without religion. The struggle of non-believers is with their anger towards and difficulty to forgive a God.
3) Divine struggles – Non-believers have rid of traditional beliefs about God, but continue to struggle to find meaning in life. They must face aging and death with strength and courage.

Coping Mechanisms

Terror Management Theory (TMT)

Solomon, S. (2011). Terror Management Theory. Oxford Bibliographies Online: Psychology, doi: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0058

Terror Management Theory, TMT
a psychological terror that overcomes human beings where they realize that death is inevitable, sometimes leading individuals to anxiety.

Vail, K.E., Rothschild, Z.K., Weise, D.R., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski T, Greenberg, J. (2009). A Terror Management Analysis of the Psychological Functions of Religion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 84-94, doi: 10.1177/1088868309351165

It is suggested here that religion offers security and belief in the afterlife that helps deal with TMT. It is better suited for this kind of cognitive dissonance seeing as how religious beliefs are considered to be more extensive and complete than secular beliefs. It is noted that the studies with higher death awareness also had higher immortality beliefs, as well as mind body dualism. This progresses the idea that religion is a plausible way to cope with complicated traumas, always being a point of reference for an individual if he or she is in a state of panic. It becomes useful when people are deeply religious because it is an automatic and quick association, that is able to overtake the person as a whole and create an immediate state of calm. Since these potential sources of depression and anxiety, on average seem to affect intrinsically religious individuals less it becomes prevalent that it is plausible for them to be in these negative states less.

Jonas, E., Fischer, P,. (2006). Terror management and religion: evidence that intrinsic religiousness mitigates worldview defense following mortality salience. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 91(3), 553-567, doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.91.3.553

It was proposed that belief in the afterlife helped individuals through a sort of coping mechanism when encountering Terror Management Theory. Three studies were conducted where the benefits intrinsic religious beliefs were compared with secular religious beliefs in dealing with fears of death. When individuals in the first study were exposed to the idea of mortality, those who identified themselves as being intrinsically religious, did not respond by supporting their world view, whereas those who did not identify themselves as intrinsically religious did the opposite. The second study conducted went on to elaborate that the previously mentioned worldview defense was only a response mechanism when individuals were asked to discuss their religiosity. Study 3 concluded that concepts of death were more difficult to access only for groups who were previously identified as intrinsically religious.


Bussell, V.A., Naus, M.J. (2010). A Longitudinal Investigation of Coping and Posttraumatic Growth in Breast Cancer Survivors. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 28(1), 61-78, doi: 10.1080/07347330903438958

Several coping mechanisms were monitored in women with breast cancer during chemotherapy, following up by post-traumatic growth two years later. These mechanisms included modes of disengagement, denial, self-blame and venting, which all established a relationship with higher levels of stress. It was noted that religion, positive reframing and acceptance were the reason for mood and fatigue variations. While coping via religion was found to impact people negatively during chemotherapy, it was noticed that after two years time, it was a beneficial coping mechanism that led to increased post traumatic growth. Positive reframing and acceptance also related to more post-traumatic growth and less perceived stress, respectively. This shows that religion does not always assist individuals directly in traumatic situations, going as far as saying that it can be actually hinder people's mindset during different disease treatments. However, as a coping mechanism for post-traumatic growth religion was useful, possibly suggesting that it has long term positive effects throughout life, adding positivity to the aftermath of hard situations for some individuals.

Ai, A.L., Peterson, C., Bolling, S.F., Koenig, H. (2002). Private Prayer and Optimism in Middle-Aged and Older Patients Awaiting Cardiac Surgery. The Gerontologist, 42(1), 70-81, doi: 10.1093/geront/42.1.70

Praying as a coping mechanism was studied in middle aged and older cardiac surgery patients to investigate a relationship between prayer and optimism. Prayer was split into components of having faith in the centrality of private prayer, the effectiveness of it with past experiences in mind and as a vehicle to handle the surgery. General religiousity was not found to be a factor in general optimism, in contrast to simple private prayer, better resources amongst other non religious factors. This was useful because it showed that perhaps the state that someone is in during prayer, is more important than their associations. The idea of having a mind at ease and calm, which can accomplished by religious prayer, but also different forms of meditation or breathing exercises, can work as a way of decreasing disease risks. Since this state of mind is not limited to observant individuals, it is difficult to argue that they are better equipped to deal with disease in this way. The only certain conclusion that can be appropriate to make here is that religious individuals and non religious individuals who can relax their mind with mechanisms like prayer and meditation can reduce their risk of some diseases more than those who do not partake in any sort of mind relaxation.

Paul-Labrador, M. D. et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166, 1218-1224

The study suggests that religious rituals and prayer work in a similar manner as soothing mechanisms for children such as a blanket or teddy bear. In these research trials, patients with coronary heart disease used transcendental medicines such as prayer (religious or otherwise) for sixteen weeks to attain healthier blood pressure and resistance to insulin. This group attained a better result than the control that simply received health education. This predicts that this type of medicine may improve coronary heart disease risks which is a new way to deal with this illness. Again, this article goes to show that putting a mind in a state of ease that can be acquired by meditation, not necessarily religious, can generally alleviate some stress symptoms and risks of diseases to a degree.

Substance Abuse and Drug Addiction

Gorsuch, R.L. (1995). Religious Aspects of Substance Abuse and Recovery. The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. 51,(2), 65-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1995.tb01324.x

Those who identify themselves as being more religious are less likely to fall into substance abuse than less religious individuals. It is deduced that this difference may stem from religion being against self harm due to monotheistic religions' belief that self harm is a sin of the highest form as it goes against creation. Moreover, it is suggested that since religious people have an automatic network and support system by association, it is speculated that believers are less likely to become substance abusers because they have other forms of escape such as going to a place of worship or prayer, which can accomplish a similar effect to a relaxant drug. Furthermore, it was noticed that the only kind of religiousness that was useful in treating substance abuse had characteristics of forgiveness and nurturing, rather than restrictiveness and negativistic blame. This shows that there are aspects of religion which are beneficial in substance abuse prevention which are not prevalent in non-observant individuals, simply because the latter can reference to less criteria about substance abuse being harmful. However, it is also necessary to point out that there are traits in religion that do not help with treatment of substance abuse since it may be considered to be sinful and hard to forgive, making it difficult to cope with one's feelings after they have used drugs or alcohol.


Frenk, S., Foy, S., Meador, K. It’s Medically Proven!: Assessing the Dissemination of Religion and Health Research. Journal of Religion and Health, 50(4), 996-1006, doi: 10.1007/s10943-010-9329-8

It has been discovered that while religion influences one’s health, that health does not influence religion. When people were interviewed and asked how religion influenced their health, they responded with specifics of religion, such as prayer, church attendance, and faith, rather than terming religious beliefs generally. Studies show that people who attend church regularly live longer lives. Studies also show that meditation and prayer lower blood pressure and heart rate, and ease anxiety. The interviewees mention religious help in physical health, such as recovery from illness. Others state that religion helps with having a positive outlook on like, that religion decreases depression, as well as reduces stress. This happens because when stress levels and blood pressure lower, one is more in tune with their body and therefore healthier.

Attitude Towards Life

The sources in this section deal with a variety of scenarios or attributes that are interpreted as being life fulfilling. In other words, these are ways that individuals make life meaningful for themselves and each other, whether it is through action or attitude. Although some of these arguments may be considered to be subjective, these assumptions are necessary to show the underlying differences between those who are observant and those who are not. Some of these sources include volunteering and charity work, which can be interpreted as a want to give back for the community. Others include optimism in difficult circumstances, where it is possible to see if or how religion can play a role in the thinking of individual.


O'Beirne, M. (2004). Religion in England and Wales: findings from the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey. Home Office Research Study, 274

It was found that both religious and non religious people volunteer an equal amount in the United Kingdom, in a 2001 Government survey, making it difficult to prove whether or not faith has anything to do with giving back to the community in some way. It was stated that religious impact is harder to relate with volunteering or charity than other characteristics, making it difficult to conclude any simple linkage between the two. The report failed to deduce any statistical significance between those who participate in what was specified as formal volunteering or civil engagement; 58% out of the Christian population is said to volunteer while 56% of the non-observant population does as well. This goes to show that things such as volunteering and charity work do not seem to be restricted to those who are observant. This means that lessons taught in religion can also be taught in other ways, such as through family and education, that can provide similar results.


Krause, N. (2002). Church-Based Social Support and Health in Old Age. The Journal of Gerontology,57(6), 332-347, doi: 10,1093/geronb/57.6.S332

A relationship between elderly church goers and health was investigated with 1,126 individuals. It was observed that those who attend church find their congregations to have greater cohesions, thereby attaining a more positive support system. These individuals also claim to have a strong personal relationship with God, claiming that this provides them with optimism which is suggested to lead in turn leads to better health. There are some assumptions here that each of these scenarios are directly correlated to one another. This is important for the question because it aids in understanding how important community and a place of worship is in the lives of the elderly. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that this might be the age where they are close to losing loved ones and friends of their age. Religion definitely benefits them in the way they view life because it can provide less fear about death, giving meaning to their lives by strengthening their relationship with God which can give hope and health by extension.

Attitude Towards Death

Dezutter, J., Soenens, B., Luyckx, K., Bruyneel, S., Vansteenkiste, M., Duriez, B., Hutsebaut, D. (2008). The Role of Religion in Deah Attitudes: Distinguishing Between Religious Belief and Style of Processing Religious Contents. Death Studies, 33 (1), 73-92, doi: 10.1080/07481180802494289

As death is a guarantee in life, people react differently and have various attitudes about it, some people can think of death as something scary and to fear, others may not be able understand death and the purpose of it, and some people may think of it as a positive experience that gives meaning and purpose to life. These attitudes towards death can alter the ways in which people understand, accept, or believe in an afterlife, as well as the meaning people find for living.

It is argued that in major world religions, religion deals with concerns about death by preparing individuals for it throughout their lives. By creating optimistic outlooks on the way one should live their life, and by explaining the positive effects that living religiously and performing acts of kindness will have on one’s death and/or afterlife, a sense of significance and purpose of life is felt. In some cases, this could mean living and everlasting life symbolically with a happy and pain free afterlife in their god(s) sanctuary, or literally, through reincarnation.

The fear of death has been linked with religiosity though. Studies found that being religious can cause a negative attitude towards death should a death come from tragedy rather than by being natural. The opposite is true should one die a natural death, living a fulfilling life.

The “Death Attitude Profile” by Gesser, Wong and Reker measured the fear of death and death acceptance, made distinct through five death attitudes:
a) Neutral acceptance – the view that death is an integral part of life
b) Approach acceptance – a positive outlook on death rooted in the belief in a happy afterlife
c) Escape acceptance – where death is a welcome alternative to a life full of pain and misery
d) Fear of death - involving feelings of fear evoked by confrontations with death
e) Death avoidance – avoidance of talking or thinking about death in order to reduce death anxiety

The Paradox

Diener, E., Tay, L., Myers D.G. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1278-1290, doi: 10.1037/a0024402

In the modern day world, it is suggested that 68% of people, around 4.6 billion, believe that religion is important in their everyday lives. Furthermore, many studies conclude that those who identify with religion have a marginally higher subject well being or SWB (this trend has been identified across major regions of the world). Research also shows that people are more likely to leave their personal religious practices in countries that are more economically developed, in other words, where religious freedom is high. It is necessary to address why this occurs if religion causes an increase in SWB. Here, it is suggested that the trend between religion and SWB is dependent upon societal conditions. Where areas are considered to be more at risk for circumstances such as hunger, famine, and decreased life expectancy, religion does play a role in increased well being, as well as greater social support, respect, and purpose or meaning in life. In contrast, in areas that are established as low risk for the aforementioned circumstances, both religious and non religious people have similar SWB. Furthermore, it was discussed that religious people had a higher SWB in religious nations but not in non-religious nations, thus concluding that well being and religion are established upon society. This article argues that both religion and happiness are interrelated but they do not have to be. Happiness does not have to come from religion and can be found in other parts of life, therefore where areas are established as no risk, people can be equally happy without religion. It is suggested that when they are facing some sort of trauma, religion becomes prevalent, becoming a marker for hope and optimism.

Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. [Kindle Version]. Retrieved from

Barber argues that religion was a necessary evolutionary mechanism, needed for coping and anxiety. He states that as long as a moderate to high standard of living is present in certain areas, precisely those areas will have a lower need for religion because individuals are more able to attain happiness by other means. It is suggested here that religion was more important in the past due to the large amount of networking that it provided. Now, Barber speculates that this networking that previously had religious ties is now readily present in social media, which is why countries that have more access to it, have higher rates of atheism or agnosticism. Barber also points out that due to technology, the public has answers to questions that they did not in the past. If an altruistic power provided them with those answers, the explanations would give the individuals happiness; however, because answers can come from a variety of sources that were not existent in the past, Barber states that individuals can now acquire happiness without religion. This source explains that happiness and religion do not have to be mutually exclusive, and that in areas where there are plenty of sources or situations for the former, the latter is not always required.

Francis, L. (1978) Measurement Reapplied: Research into the Child’s Attitude Towards Religion,// British Journal of Religious Education 1 (2) // doi: 10.1080/0141620780010202

Shortened Francis Scale of Attitude toward Christianity

Seven item scale measuring attitudes towards various aspects of the Christian faith, scored on a Likert scale.

Joseph, S. Lewis, C. A. (1998) The Depression-Happiness Scale: Reliability and validity of a bipolar self-report scale. // Journal of Clinical Psychology 54 (4) // doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-4679(199806)54:4<537::AID-JCLP15>3.0.CO;2-G

The Depression-Happiness Scale

A 25 item scale which measure positive affect. Contains 12 items concerned with positive feelings and 13 items concerned with negative feelings rated on a four-point scale. High scores are interpreted as a higher frequency of positive feelings.

Hills, P., Argyle, M., (2002) The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: a compact scale for the measurement of psychological well-being. Personality and Individual Differences 33.

Oxford Happiness Scale

A 29 item scale rated on a 6 point scale designed to rate happiness. A higher scored is associated with a higher feeling of happiness.

Lewis, C. A., Maltby, J., Burkinshaw, S. (2000) Religion and Happiness: Still no association, // Journal of Beliefs and Values. Studies in Religion and Education // doi: 10.1080/713675504

This article is useful for providing a counterargument to the belief that religious people are happier. The researchers note that in previous studies, almost all showed a positive correlation between strong religiosity and feelings of happiness using the Francis Scale of Attitude toward Christianity and the Depression-Happiness Scale. The researchers find that the link between the Francis Scale and the Depression-Happiness scale cannot be generalized to a link with the Francis Scale of Attitude toward Christianity and the Oxford Happiness scale, likely due to the different methods of measurement for each scale, with the Oxford scale measuring intensity of happiness and the Depression-Happiness scale the frequency of happiness. The article also mentions that this discrepancy between scales was also noticed by other researches, thus suggesting that a positive link between religious beliefs and happiness may not be so readily apparent. The researches conducted a survey of their own by surveying 64 Anglican priests and 70 members of the Anglican church to examine if a stronger belief in God and attitude towards religion would result in a greater feeling of happiness. The survey had no statistically significant results, demonstrating no correlation between the two scales. Thus, one cannot conclude from these findings that strong religious beliefs, or even religious beliefs at all, as it would be incorrect to assume that all church members have firm religious beliefs, are correlated to feelings of happiness.

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