Path to happiness often found in religion, study finds
The inquiry into why people are religious is an old one, but a more contemporary take on that theme revolves around the question: Does religion make us happy?
The short answer is yes, according to the Pew Research Center.
Whether it’s someone attending a Passover Seder, an Easter Sunday service or a Ramadan evening dinner, religion contributes to happiness and well-being by offering people a sense of community, the study found.
While today is Easter Sunday for Protestants and Catholics, Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter (Pascha) next Sunday. Passover began Friday evening. Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, begins the evening of May 5.
Not every religion teaches happiness as the goal of life, but happiness is often the byproduct of living the way most religions say people should live, local faith leaders say.
“I think religion provides a framework for us to be more reflective of our lives and what’s going on, and what’s making us happy and what’s not,” said Rabbi Stacy Petersohn of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.
According to Pew, which looked at survey data from the United States and more than two dozen other countries:
• Actively religious people are more likely than their less-religious peers to describe themselves as “very happy” in about half of the countries surveyed.
• There is not a clear connection between religiosity and the likelihood that people will describe themselves as being in “very good” overall health.
• The actively religious are generally less likely than the unaffiliated to smoke and drink.
• People who attend religious services at least monthly often are more likely than “nones” to join other types of (nonreligious) organizations, such as charities and clubs.
• The actively religious generally are more likely than others to vote.
Petersohn said religious practice has a cumulative effect — the more someone practices, the more he or she benefits from the practice. In Judaism, much of that practice is oriented around life-cycle events and religious holidays.
“The practice of religion and its impact on our lives can make us more happy and fulfilled,” she said. “There are also specific moments in the Jewish calendar year and in the life cycle of a Jewish person when happiness or joy is actually the goal. It’s not the only goal, but it certainly is one of many.”
In the case of Passover, the joy stems from the event being celebrated — the Jews’ delivery from bondage in Egypt — and from the ways that story inspires action on behalf of others, she said.
“There’s a charge aspect to it, in which we pay it forward,” Petersohn said.
The Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, said she is not surprised by the Pew study’s largely positive findings.
“It’s certainly true of my own experience in particular and what I’ve observed of life in Christian communities (that) participation in Christian communities helps people make sense of their lives,” she said. “That search for meaning is an essential piece of what makes us human.”
Religious communities contribute to people’s sense of happiness and well-being by connecting them to God and to other people, she said.
Barlow, a United Church of Christ pastor, cited a quote attributed to the third-century Christian theologian St. Irenaeus of Lyon: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
“That’s a person who has the deepest kind of happiness,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that you’re cheerful all the time. … It means that your life makes sense.”
People see the positive effects of religion mostly from the evidence of people’s lives — if those lives are open to wonder, are lived in service to others and have the “fruits of the Spirit” on display, Barlow said.
“It’s much more impressive … to see people in religious traditions living beautiful lives than it is to be lectured to about the benefits of religion,” she said.
The Rev. John Nosal, pastor of St. Michael’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Greensburg, said the Pew study suggests that established religious traditions contribute more to human flourishing than vague, homemade notions of spirituality.
“We humans need a combination of certainty and variety and, right now, we’re living in a time when there’s a lack of certainty. One of the things religion offers us is some structure that gives us certainty,” Nosal said.
Religion as a source of community is one of the chief ways religion benefits humanity, he said.
“Having something that gets us out of the house to go to a place of worship is a very fundamental kind of expression of meaning,” he said. “We’re relational beings, and most religions have us working on that aspect of being human.”
Engaging in those practices contributes to happiness in the same way that graduating from high school, getting a job and delaying parenthood until marriage contributes to economic security, he said.
“If we follow the Ten Commandments, the odds of ending up happy increase. When we start breaking rules that have been shown to be valuable for human behavior and life, then we’ll be unhappy,” Nosal said.
He said Christians tend to think more in terms of salvation than happiness, but the two are interrelated.
The lead monk of the region’s Buddhist community, Bhante Pemaratana of the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center in Harrison, said religion can lead to happiness, but it also can provide a framework for dealing with life’s challenges.
“Religion has the tools to make people happy,” Pemaratana said.
To achieve that, religions transform people’s definition of happiness, so much so that they “guide people away from a narrow view of happiness,” he said.
If people define happiness as a feeling derived from pleasure, possessions and social status, they’re going to be disappointed, Pemaratana said, because those things are fleeting.
But if happiness is derived from relationships, sharing and finding inner peace, it can be achieved through religion, he said.
“(Religion) gives you a whole different view of happiness,” Pemaratana said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .