Last week, I gave a speech at a school in Windsor. I talked about some research findings on the link between religion and happiness. I wasn’t worried at all as to whether the students would be engaged in the discussions or not since I was told by the project managers that the students liked talking, contributing, and asking questions in general. However, I wasn’t expecting the students to be that amazing. They critically explored the topic, asked wise questions, challenged me in a good way, and were eager to learn from me and from their peers. I really enjoyed the whole session and hoped that we had more time to discuss. When I see such kids, I feel more optimistic about our future. I see how much value they can add to this world. They have different life views, different faiths, and different ways of thinking, but they were respectful of each other – something we desperately need right now in this world.
So, what does research say about the relationship between religion and happiness? Well, as I told the students, it’s complicated. In recent years, many studies reported a positive relationship between religiosity and wellbeing outcomes such as better physical health, higher positive affect, and higher life satisfaction. However, most of these studies have many limitations. For example, they were mostly correlational studies which do not indicate causation, and the samples were drawn mostly from Western countries – especially the United States. Recently, however, there are more studies approaching the topic at the country level and comparing countries, and using longitudinal data. Still, the findings are mixed. The relationship depends on many factors. One of these factors is the match between individual’s religion and the religion of the county. That is, if there is a match, then individual religiosity is more positively associated with wellbeing. Second is the country’s level of wellbeing. In a research I conducted with my colleagues, we found that as the country’s life satisfaction increases, the relationship between individual’s religion and life satisfaction becomes more positive. There are also other factors important in this relationship such as whether the person practices religion or not. Practicing is more positively associated with wellbeing.
It’s difficult to conclude that religion results in better wellbeing outcomes. Religion may not be an important source of wellbeing for everyone. Studies suggest that the most important thing is not the religion itself or being religious, but whether the person benefits from religion such as social support and meaning. We need to be careful about interpreting the research findings as to how religion is linked to wellbeing given that various mechanisms can be effective.
Let’s see what the new studies will tell us about the role of religion in our wellbeing.