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Do marriage and religion make people happier?

Age, gender, belief in God, marital status and other factors may predict happiness

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Two rings against a pink background.

Two rings against a pink background.

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

While a majority of Americans say they’re “pretty happy,” only 12% describe themselves as “very happy.” That’s according to the latest Wall Street Journal-NORC poll, which captures the pulse of the nation on values and political beliefs.

The group of people who rated themselves as “very happy” was “the smallest share of ‘very happy’ people ever recorded in NORC’s General Social Survey, dating to 1972,” Aaron Zitner wrote for The Wall Street Journal.

The share of Americans who say they’re pretty happy has remained stable over the last five years, but those who say they are not too happy have increased and the group who says they’re very happy has decreased.

So, what do the people who say they’re very happy have in common?

They tend to be older, value marriage, believe in God, have an interest in fitness and are more likely to be women, the WSJ reported. The “very happy” people are not free from hardships like divorce and illness, and “many said that they felt their happiness was partly built into their personalities, partly controlled by choices they make in their daily lives.”

Around two-thirds of the very happy group say marriage and belief in God are very important to them, compared to less than half of both the pretty happy and not happy groups saying that, per the poll. Why do marriage and belief in God have these benefits?

Pro-social benefits of marriage

Marriage can predict the happiness of both men and women.

“Being married is the most important differentiator with a 30-percentage point happy-unhappy gap over the unmarried,” University of Chicago researcher Sam Peltzman wrote.

Among those who are married, those who have children tend to be the happiest, University of Virginia researcher Brad Wilcox wrote for Institute of Families Studies. “As difficult as marriage and parenthood can be, in general, men and women who have the benefit of a spouse and children are the most likely to report that they are ‘very happy’ with their lives, according to the most recent round of the General Social Survey.”

Researchers have questioned if it’s marriage itself that makes people happier or if people who are happier are more likely to get married. Looking at longitudinal surveys, Lyman Stone wrote for Institute of Family Studies that research shows people who get married are happier after marriage than they were when they were single.

Though friendship can create close relationships with pro-social benefits, Stone said they don’t yield comparable levels of happiness. “This doesn’t mean that friendship is irrelevant for happiness, of course,” Stone wrote for Institute of Family Studies. “... But this does suggest that, at the high level, filling your life with game nights and book clubs and outings with friends is unlikely to yield as much happiness as marriage.”

Pro-social benefits of religion

Religion has benefits linked to community engagement and social activity that may contribute to higher levels of happiness.

“Regular participation in a religious community clearly is linked with higher levels of happiness and civic engagement,” an analysis for Pew Research Center found. “This may suggest that societies with declining levels of religious engagement, like the U.S., could be at risk for declines in personal and social well-being.”

Religion’s relationship to happiness may have something to do with the pro-social benefits of participating in a community. Friendship networks, longevity of life, high social activity and certain health habits, like refraining from alcohol or smoking, may contribute to the higher levels of happiness among those who participate in their religious communities, according to Pew Research.

By creating strong social ties in a spiritual environment, religion also has positive impacts on mental health. “Study after study has found that religious people tend to be less depressed and less anxious than nonbelievers, better able to handle the vicissitudes of life than nonbelievers,” Bryan Walsh wrote for Time magazine.

Beyond community formation, there are some beliefs common across religions, like the importance of expressing gratitude and awe that are effective in raising an individuals’ happiness, per The Guardian.

Perception of God is another type of belief that may have an impact on people’s happiness. University of Miami professor Gail Ironson “found that people who believed in a vengeful God showed a faster disease progression — as measured by their declining white blood cell count — compared with those who believed he was a merciful figure,” according to The Guardian.

Do politics predict happiness?

Political party affiliation did not predict happiness. The WSJ/NORC poll found 39% of Republicans, 44% of Democrats and 17% of independents/don’t know said they were very happy. Across the entire poll, 38% of people identified as Republican, 44% as Democrat and 18% as independents/don’t know. “Neither political party claims a disproportionate share of the very happy,” the WSJ reported.

Other studies have shown a difference between political party affiliation and happiness, like the 2022 American Family Survey. Conservative men and women were found to have higher life satisfaction when compared to liberal men and women, but there were two factors in particular that may have divided the groups: marital status and family satisfaction, according to Institute for Family Studies.

“The secret to happiness, for most men and women, involves marriage and a life based around family,” Wilcox wrote for Institute for Family Studies.