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Religion: Does It Help or Hinder Happiness?

It's a common view that the demands of faith make people miserable. Scientific polling tells the opposite story.

Some people believe that the demands of faith contradict happiness. However, researchers in positive psychology, the science of happiness, have discovered that traditional Christian practices actually promote human happiness and well-being.

Certainly, the Christian life involves loving neighbor and loving God rather than seeking personal satisfaction at other people’s expense. But part of the Christian message is that authentic happiness is to be found not in selfishness but in self-giving. As Pope Francis notes, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (Evangelii Gaudium 1). The Christian way in its fullness, even in its sacrifices for love, is not an alternative to happiness, fulfillment, and joy but a pathway to those things.

Positive emotion

Scientists discovered that those who practice their religious faith report less depression and more positive emotion. In his book The Pursuit of Happiness, psychologist David Myers notes, “Survey after survey across North America and Europe revealed that religious people more often than nonreligious people report being happy and satisfied with life” (183). People who strongly believe in God are more than twice as likely to report being happy as those who do not believe in God.

When researchers examined religious practices, such as attending church, they found a link between worship and reported happiness. Eighty-six percent of people who attend church services weekly report being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with life” (ibid., 183).

Notice that these trends are about those who practice religious faith, not merely those who have religious faith. The man who professes belief in God but who lives as if God does not exist, skipping church to watch the Broncos play the Seahawks, is unlikely to experience the positive effects reported by the researchers. Researchers also found that people who practice a religious faith are less likely to suffer from intense negative feelings such as depression.

Engaged love

Psychologist Martin Seligman holds that “the pursuit of relationships is a rock-bottom fundamental of human well-being” (Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, 21). Again and again, the psychological research points to loving relationships as necessary for happiness. We can have money, fame, and power; but without love, we will not be happy.

The Grant Study from Harvard University followed the lives of undergraduates for more than seventy years, in some cases into their nineties. It is one of the longest-running and most in-depth studies of human flourishing ever conducted. Its lead researcher concluded, “The seventy-five years and $20 million expended on the Grant Study points . . . to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop’” (Scott Stossel, “What Makes Us Happy, Revisited,” Atlantic Monthly, April 24, 2013).

Jesus gave us this same message for free about 2,000 years earlier! “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus at the Last Supper, “love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34). For Jesus, the most important thing of all is loving God and loving neighbor (Luke 10:27). The fundamental law of a follower of Christ is love, and those who love God and neighbor set themselves up for happiness.

Christian belief also enhances love of neighbor. The call of Jesus is a call to love all people. Jesus exemplified this by loving those who seemed least lovable, such as lepers, tax collectors, and criminals. He even loved those who were crucifying him: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Because no one is excluded from the love of Christ, no one is excluded from the love of a true Christian. This universal call to love greatly promotes happiness, because rather than having to reserve our love (our goodwill, appreciation, and seeking of unity) to just our family, or just our friends, or just people like us, we are encouraged to love anyone who crosses our path. Opportunities to love are as common as people.

Discovering meaning

Psychologists also talk about meaning as part of happiness. Meaning is defined as making a contribution to others. Christianity enhances meaning through granting significance to even our small contributions that might—at first glance—appear to be quite meaningless. We can miss out on meaning by waiting for the grand opportunity to contribute but missing the everyday opportunities to make a difference for the better.

Few of us will make headlines with our contributions. We will not be curing cancer, donating billions of dollars to charity, or establishing schools for orphaned children. So if we wait to make a difference only in such a grand way, we might make no contribution at all. But all of us have chances, not just rarely but every day, to enhance the lives of those around us. We can find meaning not just in amazing actions but also in humble ways when we make life a little better for those with whom we live and work.

Ancient saints such as Augustine and modern Christian guides such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta have emphasized that even small actions done with great love are meaningful and significant. The ultimate significance of our actions is not simply a matter of what we are doing but also why and how we are doing it. To listen to someone intently, to smile at someone kindly, to help someone spontaneously—all these are everyday ways to find meaning.

Not coveting

Positive psychology and Christian teaching coincide in setting forth cautions about comparative accomplishment. Positive psychology provides powerful evidence that the pursuit of happiness via upward social comparison (competing for social superiority) is likely to end in disappointment. Many people believe that happiness will be found if they can be better than others in some competition. If only they had more—more money, more popularity, more fame, or more power than whomever they are comparing themselves with—then they would be happy.

But such success tends not to last long. Robin Williams said he felt the joy of winning an Academy Award for about a week. For others, the glow of achievement is even more short-lived. In his book The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar writes, “On the evening of May 31, 1987, I became Israel’s youngest-ever national squash champion. I was thrilled to win the championship and felt truly happy. For about three hours. And then I began to think that this accomplishment wasn’t actually very significant” (3).

Even those who succeed in being the very best in terms of social comparison do not find lasting happiness in their success, for they may end up competing against themselves. Sonja Lyubomirsky writes: “[A]fter Thriller became the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson declared that he would not be satisfied unless his next album sold twice as many copies. In fact, it sold 70 percent fewer. Most musicians would be thrilled with sales of 30 million, but for Jackson the contrast with his earlier success was stinging” (The Myths About Happiness, 120).

The arrival fallacy describes the phenomenon that once people achieve their goals, the happiness that they thought last proves surprisingly fleeting. Like the horizon that always eludes our arrival, the achievement of superiority in social comparison does not bring lasting satisfaction but simply gives way to yet another goal.

Christian teaching can enhance happiness by warning against such social comparison, specifically through the tenth commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. I never really understood the importance of this commandment until I studied positive psychology. I thought, “What does it matter if I wish to have what my neighbor has? Who does that harm?” It turns out that my coveting my neighbor’s goods harms me, because in order to covet I must first engage in upward social comparison.

To covet our neighbor’s goods, we must first compare our possessions to our neighbor’s material goods and find that what we have does not measure up. Christian warnings about greed, especially for money, contribute to the happiness of the Christian by discouraging upward social comparison and thus preventing the needless disappointment such comparisons can bring.

Forgiveness

Christ’s teachings on forgiveness could not be clearer or more emphatic. When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he linked God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14-15). The centrality of forgiveness is emphasized in every Gospel, in every liturgy, and in every Our Father.

Even as Jesus was dying on the cross, he gave an example of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus, in his actions and in his teaching, emphasized the importance of forgiving other people—not just seven times, but seventy times seven, symbolizing a perfect, unlimited number of times (Matt. 18:22).

Christopher Peterson, a pioneer in positive psychology, has written that the ability to forgive may be the most important factor for happiness:

Forgiveness undoes our own hatred and frees us from the troubled past. Indeed, forgiveness has been described as the queen of the virtues—that is, those who forgive are much more serene than those who do not and display many other positive strengths (A Primer in Positive Psychology, 33).

Since human beings misunderstand and fail each other regularly, without forgiveness, human relationships will not last. If we lack long-term relationships, deep human happiness is impossible. In addition to undermining relationships, lack of forgiveness also sabotages the positive emotions that are part of flourishing. “Unforgiveness can be defined as delayed negative emotions, involving resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, residual anger and residual fear” (Everett Worthington, Forgiving and Reconciling, 33). Lack of forgiveness actually stresses the body into experiencing an ongoing “fight or flight” response that undermines sleep, digestion, cardiovascular heath, and the immune system.

By contrast, researchers have discovered that “forgiving people are less likely to be hateful, depressed, hostile, anxious, angry, and neurotic. They are more likely to be happier, healthier, more agreeable, and more serene” (Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness, 172). Positive psychology provides empirical confirmation of one of the most central of Jesus’s teachings: the importance of forgiveness.

Gratitude

The Old Testament is filled with injunctions to give thanks: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his love endures forever” (Ps. 136:1, NIV); “You are my God, I will give thanks to you” (Ps. 118:28). The New Testament likewise emphasizes gratitude: “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess. 5:18); “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1); give “thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” (Eph. 5:20). Jesus commanded his followers to celebrate the Eucharist, to offer a thanksgiving. St. Ambrose taught, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.”

The benefit of practicing gratitude toward others is now a well-established finding in psychology. Perhaps this is why I love Thanksgiving Day, and in that I am not alone. A Gallup poll found that Americans’ favorite day of the year is the fourth Thursday of November (Philip C. Watkins, Gratitude and the Good Life, 15). On Thanksgiving, people stop focusing on what they don’t have and rejoice in what they do have. Thanksgiving Day also has the fewest number of suicides (F.S. Bridges, “Rates of Homicide and Suicide on Major National Holidays,” Psychological Reports 94, no. 2, 2004, 723-724). Gratitude literally saves lives.

In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, but we have the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving every Sunday (or every day, for that matter). The Mass is a celebration of the Eucharist, which is the Greek term for thanksgiving. Every Mass, we can consider all that we have been given by God and in joy give back to God our awareness and gratitude for these gifts. Each Eucharist can become a thank-you note to our Heavenly Father who has done us a great service. It is no accident that the last words of each Mass are “Thanks be to God.” Nor is it any accident that people of faith are more grateful and happier.

One of the first practices that I learned about in positive psychology is called the “Three Good Things” or the “three blessings” practice. The Three Good Things exercise is simple. At the end of the day, think over what went well from the time you got up until evening. It could be that nothing major happened that day, so don’t forget to look for the little blessings of life. Perhaps you enjoyed a good cup of coffee in the morning or a nice warm shower. Perhaps the commute to work took place without hassles. Practicing the Three Good Things exercise helps us to become grateful for the good that is present in our lives.

Indeed, most of us live lives that are more comfortable and better than what a king in the ancient world could expect. No pharaoh, no caesar, no king of France had antibiotics, cell phones, or Novocaine at the dentist. Unfortunately, it is not just people in centuries past who have had to do without modern medicine, technology, and pain relief.

Even in our own times, millions and millions of people lack basic necessities such as clean water and food. Whatever our material well-being, we have innumerable goods to be thankful for, but we may not even notice them. Practicing counting at least three blessings every day can help us notice the amazing blessings already present in our daily lives.

The founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), recommended to those seeking his guidance in spiritual direction that they practice the “Examen” every day. Certain aspects of the Examen are similar to the Three Good Things exercise. The prayer begins with seeking an awareness of all the gifts God has provided, either directly or through the mediation of other people, to us in the previous twenty-four hours. We look for God’s work in our lives, and, in particular, we seek to become aware of the blessings God has given us.

Religion does make a difference

Psychologists have found that religious belief and practice contribute to human well-being. People who practice their faith have higher levels of positive emotion. The fundamental Christian law is the law of love for God and neighbor, which fosters positive relationships. Christians can find lasting meaning in making a contribution to God’s kingdom, which makes a difference not just now but eternally. And, finally, Christians are called to practice forgiveness (which contributes to long-term relationships) and gratitude (which helps us see the good in our lives). Positive psychology provides an independent verification of the happiness-boosting power of many traditional Christian practices.

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