The big question: Why are religious folks, on average, happier than those without religion? Good news for non-believers — Drawing from research, I assert that the answer lies in something that each of us can achieve, with or without religious leanings.
First, the facts on religion + happiness: Several studies by Gallup, Pew, and others have shown a strong positive correlation between religion and happiness (read all about the various studies here). This research conforms to my own experiences, as I have found many (but not all) of the most fulfilled and positive individuals in my own life to be spiritually-committed.
What drives happiness, anyways? There are many different factors that are linked to happiness. Carl Jung has a list of 5 attributes, Daniel Pink has a 10 step list, and other theories are abound. However, it is the field of positive psychology that has been gaining significant credibility around a simple concept: gratitude drives happiness. This is a key finding — happiness does not drive gratitude, but instead the other way around.
The emotional consequence of religion: Religion typically provides a framework that does many things, ranging from providing purpose for one’s existence to immorality through an afterlife. And what is a primary emotional symptom of these benefits? Immense gratitude for these gifts — gratitude which often takes the form of daily prayer for religious individuals.
A structural solution for non-believers: In short, embed gratitude into your own life. Make your own “daily prayer” by thinking of 5 things you are grateful for while you are walking to work or class, and capture the positivity that comes with this simple act.
That’s it? No doubt — there are some other important happiness-inducing attributes of religion beyond gratitude. There is a community of supporters that can come from a church group, and mitigated anxiety during hard times from having a clear personal code of conduct and raison d’etre. However, community can be built outside of religious groups, and one can create a meaningful personal code of conduct without it being drawn directly from any one religious text. As such, I believe the biggest missing piece for many purpose-driven + community-oriented non-believers is generally gratitude, and that is wonderful news, as it can be fixed.
What am I grateful for today? Today, as I walked from my summer rental in Cambridge to a Starbucks in Davis Square, I created my daily list. I am grateful for (in no particular order) 1) being alive right now (billions of humans can no longer say the same), 2) my loving family, 3) an incredible, kind hearted, and eclectic group of friends, 4) the ability to exercise, and 5) the opportunity to study at a great school.
What are you grateful for? I’d love to hear it.