The Happiness Advantage

Consider two individuals: Bob is 35 years old, single, white, attractive and athletic. He earns $130,000 a year and lives in sunny, Southern California. He is highly intellectual and spends his free time reading and going to museums. Mary, on the other hand, lives with her husband in snowy, Buffalo, New York, where their combined income is $50,000. Mary is sixty-five years old, black, overweight, and plain in appearance. She is highly sociable, and she spends her free time mostly in activities related to her church. She is on dialysis for kidney problems.

Friends, these are two profiles presented by Jonathan Haidt in his 2006 book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Haidt, a psychologist and atheist, writes, “Bob seems to have it all, and few readers would prefer Mary’s life to his. Yet, if you had to bet on it, you should bet that Mary is happier than Bob.” There are a variety of reasons why Haidt makes that diagnosis, but the two most important seem to be “a stable marriage” and “involvement in religion.”  In general, he has found, people in good marriages tend to happier than single people, and those involved in a church or other religious organization are usually happier than those who are not. These two factors are much more reliable predictors of happiness than things like financial status or physical health.

It also seems that a stable marriage and religious involvement are related to each other. While surveys find that those who identify as Christians get divorced at about the same rate as the general population, active church attenders have a much lower rate of divorce. In fact, surveys have found that people who attend church more than once a week report the greatest satisfaction with both their marriage and the sexual aspect of that relationship. Haidt’s claim that religious people have a “happiness advantage” doesn’t impress everyone. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker responds with a quote borrowed from George Bernard Shaw: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”  Yet, as author Rebecca McLaughlin points out, that analogy really misses the point.  She notes that while drunk people may be happier than those who are sober, they “are not more self-controlled, more likely to care for others, more deeply engaged with their work, more likely to be healthy and long-lived, or less likely to divorce than are sober people.”  In other words, religious people, as a group, tend to be not only happier, but are, by almost any measure, living “better” lives than non-religious folks.  McLaughlin says a more accurate analogy would be to view religious involvement as an elixir which, though it cannot be fully explained, is likely to improve the emotional and physical well-being of those who partake.

Now, it is true these practical benefits of religious involvement do not confirm the truth claims of Christianity or any other religion. Haidt continues to be an atheist, despite his conclusion that religion is a positive contributor to people’s lives. What seems evident, however, is that charges that religion (in general and Christianity in particular) is harmful to either individuals or societies are demonstrably false. Instead, it appears that religion has, for the most part, a very positive impact on both individuals and societies. The secularists’ dream that religion will soon fade away is in reality a nightmare. Fortunately, there is little reason to believe their dream will come true.

Rev. Dan Erickson,  Senior Pastor, Chisolm Baptist Church
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Dan Erickson