Many recent studies have evaluated whether Christians are happier than their secular neighbors, and compare the proportion of Christians who are happy with other religious groups. The question as to what makes people happier has been a question pondered by philosophers throughout time. Philosophers from Aristotle to Jacques Rousseau and Bertrand Russel have considered happiness to be one of the principal goals of human existence.
What makes one person happy may not work for other individuals. Happiness, after all, relates to emotion and often not defined by empirical data but rather by changing feelings.
Happiness is generally thought to represent a sense of well-being or having a purpose in life and a sense of being loved and needed. Life satisfaction may be very different when living in a poor country where expectations are modest compared to living in a first-world country where expectations are much greater.
Research seems to indicate that the representative “happy person” is a young, healthy, well-educated, well paid, optimistic and extroverted individual. The happiest of these also tended to be religious, married, with high self-esteem and job morale with modest aspirations.
Research indicates that your gender or level of intelligence does not enter into the equation of happiness as both measures are approximately equal among happy people.
Religion and Happiness
The Pew Research Center performed a study to evaluate the relationship between religion and happiness as defined by an individual. They found that worldwide, more than 80 percent of people identify with a religious group. They determined that there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children throughout the world representing about 84% of the world’s population.
This population of religiously affiliated individuals included the following groups,
- Christians (2.2 billion or 32% of the world’s population),
- Muslims (1.6 billion or 23% of the population),
- Hindus (1.0 billion or 15% of the world’s population),
- Buddhists (0.5 billion or 7% of the world’s population
- Jews (14 million (0.2% of the world’s population)
- Other (400 million or 6 percent of the world’s population)
- None (1.1 billion or 16% of the world’s population)
Other religious identities include Baha’i, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism to mention only a few.
Christians are fairly well distributed throughout the world while other groups tend to be geographically isolated. Roughly equal numbers of Christians live in Europe (26 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (24 percent), and the sub-Saharan Africa region (24 percent).
Seventy-five percent of the religiously unaffiliated life in the Asia-Pacific region; the number of religiously unaffiliated living in China is about twice the population of the United States at 700 million.
Similarly, 62 percent of the world’s Muslims live in the Asia Pacific region of the country.
Majorities and Minorities
The study also showed that about three-quarters of the world’s people living in regions where their religious group makes up a majority of the population. Overwhelmingly, Hindus and Christians live in countries where they are in the majority.
Ninety-seven percent of Hindus life where they are in the majority with most living in India, Mauritius, and Nepal).
Similarly, about 87 percent of Christians living the world’s 157 majority Christian nations.
Religious People More Social
People who attend religious services are more likely than secular individuals to join other types of nonreligious social groups such as charities and clubs.
We have elsewhere documented that religious Christians are more charitable to both church as well as to secular charities. This tendency is not only true in the United States but also in eight of the 26 other countries surveyed.
In the U.S., 58 percent of religious people are also involved in nonreligious charities, compared to 51 percent of the inactively religious and 39 percent of the unaffiliated.
This tendency of religious people to be more socially oriented with more outside social exposure may be one reason why religious people are also less depressed and have less psychiatric issues than their secular counterparts.
As an extension of their greater social involvement, Christians are more likely to vote and be politically active than their secular counterparts.
In Spain, fully 83 percent of actively religious people report that they always vote in national elections while only 62 percent of the religiously inactive population and 53 percent of the secular population usually vote.
Similarly, in the United States, 69 percent of the actively religious say they always vote compared with 59 percent of the inactive religious people and only 48 percent of the secular population vote.
There are no countries where the actively religious population is less likely to vote than the secular population.
The religious population is generally healthier than their secular counterparts. There are likely many reasons for this health disparity, but probably a large contribution relates to their improve health habits.
The religiously unaffiliated are more likely to be smokers and drinkers than their religious neighbors. Many religions try to get their people to adopt more healthy attitudes and practices.
In all but two of 19 countries for which sufficient data is available, the actively religious are less likely than the secular population to smoke. Additionally, the actively religious group who attend church at least once a month tend to drink less than the secular population.
Researches have found that improved happiness is correlated with improved health.
A study of more than 7,000 adults found those with a positive sense of well-being were 47 percent more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables than their less happy counterparts. They also found that the happy were 33 percent more likely to be physically active defined as ten or more hours of exercise a week.
Being happier is associated with improved sleep habits and practices. The proper amount of sleep has been shown to be particularly important for blood pressure, cancer prevention, Alzheimer’s Disease prevention, heart disease, and longevity.
A 2016 review of 44 studies found that there seems to be a link between proper sleep habits and happiness.
Improved Immune System
Researchers have determined that happiness is correlated with a better immune system, and possibly with increased ability to fight off colds and chest infections.
One study evaluated 300 healthy individuals and evaluated their risk of developing a cold after individuals were given a common cold virus by nasal drops. The least happy individuals were almost three times more likely to be sick than their happier counterparts.
Improved Stress Control
The happier people are able to handle stress better than their unhappy counterparts. One study of 200 adults evaluated their ability to cope with stress. When happier people were given stressful tasks, the cortisol levels in the happiest individuals were 32 percent lower than in the unhappy counterparts.
These effects persist over time. When these same individuals were then followed after three years, there remained a 20 percent difference between the cortisol level of the happy testers and the unhappy ones.
Arthritis is certainly a common condition that occurs more frequently in older individuals with painful and stiff joints.
Many studies have found that higher sense of well being may reduce the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis.
Studies also show that being happy may improve the physical functioning of people with arthritis.
One study of 1000 people with painful arthritis found that happier individuals walked an extra 711 steps a day – 8.5 percent more than their less happy counterparts.
Happiness also seems to reduce the pain associated with other medical conditions. A study of over 1000 individuals recovering from a stroke found that the happiest individual had 13 percent less pain rating after three months than did their less happy counterparts.
With all these positive health effects of happiness, it should not be too surprising that the happy tend to live longer.
A long-term study of 32,000 people evaluated the effect of happiness on life expectancy. The study found that the risk of death over the 30-year study was 14 percent higher in the unhappy individuals compared to their happy counterparts.
Higher positive sense of well-being also had a positive effect on long-term survival, reducing the risk of death by 18 percent in healthy people and by 2 percent in those with preexisting illnesses.
Studies show that religiously active tend to be happier in their lives than their secular counterparts.
This reported subjective feeling does not seem to relate to education, gender, or economic status but rather is a function of their religious attendance.
The more an individual attends religious practices, the happier they seem to be on average. Additionally, the religiously affiliated are more socially active in their communities and vote more frequently than their secular neighbors.
While certainly, this is a subjective feeling, most would agree that being happy would be a goal of most people whatever their living circumstances. Happiness is generally associated with improved health.
This seems to be self-evident and known to philosophers long before it was investigated by medical science.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle noted,
Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.
While most Christians would agree that happiness is certainly important, they would not go so far as to believe it is the “whole end of human existence.”