I was an undergraduate right around the time “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and other famous polemical anti-religious books came out. Big picture questions about religion and its harms (wars, anti-intellectualism, terrorism) or benefits were in the air, and I read all that I could on the topic. Later in graduate school, I was exposed to and grew interested in the relatively new field of positive psychology. While classical psychological efforts are geared toward resolving psychological problems, positive psychology asks not only what helps prevent problems like depression, but what promotes positive feelings like happiness. It seemed to me that, fundamentally, the most important question to answer was how to be happy (and I’m not alone in this, as one of the most popular classes at Harvard for nearly 20 years is on the science of happiness).

So, of course, I was interested in seeing what this research had to say about the really big questions concerning religion that occupied my after-school hours as an undergraduate. Given the broadside polemics against religion I had read, rhetoric that took religion’s evils as inherent, I expected to at least see some ambiguity in the literature over something as potentially sensitive as whether religion makes people happy.

But that’s not what I found. There is no substantive ambiguity. Religion is almost always associated with being happier.

Debates about the impact of religion on society have been going on for a long time, and they certainly did not start with popular atheism crusader Dawkins. There is one facet of that debate, however, which, scientifically speaking, is largely settled.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

From the standpoint of statistics and empirical evidence, how much do we know about whether religious or nonreligious people are happier? A lot, it turns out. Take Oxford University Press’ “Handbook of Religion and Health,” a nearly 1,200-page tome published in 2012 that addresses the topic, among other areas of research. The authors analyzed 326 articles on the relationship between health and measures of “religiosity and subjective well-being, happiness, or life satisfaction,” finding that 79 percent of those studies reported that religious people were happier, while only 1 percent reported that they were less happy (the rest found no or mixed findings).

But just because religion and happiness tend to go together does not mean that religion causes happiness. Yet, this same Oxford book found a dozen studies that were randomized control trials — the gold standard of establishing cause and effect — where people were arbitrarily assigned to different religious interventions, and in more than half of the cases, simply assigning people to various interventions encouraging them to be more religious led to measurable increases in happiness.

The relationship between happiness and religiosity is so established that many research papers take it as a given starting point. For example, a recent paper published in the prestigious social science journal Social Forces on whether religiosity makes it easier to deal with unemployment (it does, with some caveats) states that it is a “well-known research finding … that, in general, the religious are happier than the non-religious.”

So, how does anyone measure happiness? It’s actually quite easy. Just asking people how happy they are has been shown to be related to a wide variety of other measures of well-being, so researchers can simply include a single-question measure about happiness in a survey that is valid for research on the concept of happiness. The happiness-faith relationship is strong enough that it shows up almost any way you slice the data or ask the question. Sometimes researchers will say “it’s complicated,” but it’s really not. With the exception of very particular contexts in the 1 percent of studies finding a negative relationship, whenever you run an analysis on this question, the religious are almost always happier.

For instance, almost every year, a large survey with a wide variety of questions is disseminated among Americans called the General Social Survey. For many years now, this survey has asked the simple question: Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?

When you dig into the past three years of surveys — 2018, 2021 and 2022 — and look at how many people identify as happy by how often they go to church, the pattern is clear:

Specifically, almost 1 in 3 frequent religious service attenders say they are “very happy,” while among non-attenders it is about 1 in 5. Conversely, about 15 percent of frequent religious service attenders say they are “not too happy,” whereas for non-attenders it is 23 percent.

The fact that 15 percent of frequent attenders are still “not too happy,” of course, shows that there is a lot more influencing happiness in our lives than just religion, and that religiosity is not a panacea. Still, the overall pattern is unavoidable.

But why? The Oxford “Handbook of Religion and Health” I cited above quotes famous mathematician Blaise Pascal with an explanation, saying that the individual “tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”

Relatedly, an article I wrote showed that on average people who believe in God report more meaning in their lives; for some (but not all) the belief in something higher can provide an added measure of meaning. Well known is Karl Marx’s “religion is the opiate of the masses,” less well known is the sentence that precedes it: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Religion undoubtedly gives some people broader existential security and purpose, and this may play a significant role in explaining why religious people are happier.

In the same way that attending a bowling league or a charity-based club can expand one’s social connections, so too can participation in a local neighborhood church, mosque or synagogue.

Religiosity has also been found to be associated with other positive emotions that are precursors to happiness such as optimism, hope, gratitude and self-esteem. It is likely that religious perspectives give one rose-colored glasses for moving throughout life. Less scientifically, the Bible says that “the light of the body is the eye; if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” This light-filled perspective bleeds over into multiple domains of life. A rose-colored religious worldview may help people avoid cognitively catastrophizing bad events in their life; it may help them dwell on the positive things they are grateful for instead of the negative things they do not have. Increased happiness may help one’s relationships, which has a feedback effect causing even more happiness. There are many plausible pathways for why the optimism and faith engendered by a religious worldview can lead to a higher quality of life and more happiness.

However, religion’s benefits are not all based on belief and frameworks about life and the universe. Researchers often try to parse out which types of religiosity have which benefits, often dividing religion between intrinsic measures — such as God imagery and prayer — and more extrinsic social measures — such as church attendance — and they find that both have effects. In other words, actually going to church and participating in religious rituals with others is typically associated with well-being independent of more intrinsic factors such as belief and prayer.

While it is difficult to parse out the precise “why” for the more social part of religiosity being related to happiness, it is likely that for us, as social creatures, religion provides precious social connections, networks and experiences that are in decline and in short supply in the year 2024. (In 2023, about 12 percent of Americans said they had no close friends — in 1990, it was only 3 percent). In the same way that attending a bowling league or a charity-based club can expand one’s social connections, so too can participation in a local neighborhood church, mosque or synagogue.

Ultimately, the research shows a well-established association between religion and happiness in a myriad of different ways in our lives. So, will sitting in the pews and praying be the sure cure for what ails us? While being more familiar with the literature helped me recognize the benefits religion has provided in my own life, faith is not something I mechanistically take for my own happiness like some sort of pill. Taking off my investigator hat and entering into more speculative territory, I think that being religious for the personal benefits it provides to our psychological well-being is missing the point, and I suspect that such religiosity probably has fewer benefits anyway. The New Testament says that he who finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will find it. In my opinion, at least some of the benefit from religion is because it forces us to look beyond ourselves and to something greater.

Stephen Cranney is a nonresident fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion and lectures at The Catholic University of America.

This story appears in the May 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.