Community and Religion: poor predictors of the bliss of nations

Let me begin with this video – it was shot last Sunday in Jerusalem, in the Basilic where the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Jesus Christ, is vigilated by two opposing platoons of Armenian priests and Orthodox popes, under the surveillance of two Muslim families, helped by the occasional police patrol.

(Hat Tip: Le Monde via Yasmine Bouagga)

I know, I know, this is an unfair, demagogic, uselessly provocative way to introduce the topic of today. The reason I couldn't help but show it is because it reminds me of endless "Street Fighter" afternoons. I would love to play the man in the red satin robes.

But to my point: many recent posts, papers and articles are discussing whether strong community ties and religious beliefs reliably contribute to happiness. That they do is widely believed, on the basis of previous studies of self-reported happiness in the USA. Several theorists, for example Jonathan Haidt, in his paper 'Planet of the Durkheimians', made the very Durkheimian point that a strong, holistic, cohesive social system (in Durkheim's example, a catholic, collectivist, family-bound social life, compared to a protestant, "anomic", individualistic one), with a coherent and authoritative belief-system, is the kind of social system we evolved to be in. It ought, therefore, to make us happy. And indeed, inside the USA, religious people give more and they report being more happy with their lives…

But the studies reporting links between happiness and a conservative frame of mind involving a "holistic", integrative social environment and religious orientations, were mostly done inside one country. You might think that all this charity-giving, feeling-good-with-one's-life vibes should make a nation as a whole feel happier – but it doesn't seem to be the case. New measures of happiness between countries show Planet of the Durkheimians not to be such a great place to live after all.

Adrian White, who meta-analyzed data from 100 different studies to produce a world map of happiness, found that the poster-boys of "holistic" societies, such as India or Japan, score awfully bad (respectively 120th and 90th in a list of 178; China is 82d), especially given the state of their healthcare system, education and economic growth. Many top countries, on the other hand could be described, comaratively, as irreligious, individualistic, laissez-faire capitalistic hells (1. Denmark, 2. Switzerland, 3. Austria, 4. Iceland – well, I guess the crisis changed that – 5. The Bahamas – same).

In Slate, Paul Bloom wonders why record-setting atheist countries like Denmark and Sweden consistently show up in the top percentiles of studies about happiness, or low murder and abortion rates. Will Wilkinson makes the same point about Arthur Brooks, one of the leading proponents of the religion-breeds-happiness hypothesis.

But wait a minute. Cross-national comparisons are arguably dirtier, messier and more confounded by various factors (e.g. cultural factors) than individual comparisons. Shouldn't we keep to the beautiful individual data that we have, and just diregard messy cross-national comparisons?

Conclusions form cross-national data should not be taken for granted, but there are reasons to take them seriously. Will Wilkinson lays them down quite well: first, individual data on self-reported happiness exist that point toward the same conclusion. WIll Wilkinson cites a study where it is shown that, in Denmark and the Netherlands, there is only a weak relation between self-reports of happiness and religiosity (the relation is only slightly stronger in the USA). One might object that the claim that religion breeds happiness is valid only in religious countries – but that would amount to saying that people are more happy when they are adjusted to the belief-system that dominates their society (an interesting claim no doubt, but weaker, and slightly beside the point).

Second, and more importantly, the Durkheimian assumption is not merely a claim about individuals, but about whole societies. Strongly cohesive, "holistic" social links, and religiosity are supposed, according to defenders of the claim, to benefit society as a whole as they help develop charity, solidarity, concern for others, etc. If they are as central to social life as proponents of the assumption suppose they are, they should easily trample occasional confounding factors, at least when comparing countries as economically and culturally similar as Denmark, the Netherlands and the USA: holistic causes should beget holistic effects.


Adrian White's World Map of Happiness – here.

Religiousness and happness in three nations (Denmark, Netherlands and USA) – here.

Will WIlkinson discusses Arthur Brooks – here.

Paul Bloom discusses the relation between religion and happiness – here.

'Planet of the Durkheimians: where Community, Authority and Sacreness are foundations of Morality' by Jonathan Haidt – here.


  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 14 November 2008 (14:44)

    Self-report of happiness probably tend to co-vary with happiness (more for the same person over time than across people), but they also tend to co-vary with the social appropriateness of declaring oneself happy or unhappy. This appropriateness is affected by a variety of cultural factors, among which religion. Suppose the results tending to show that religious people are more happy have been found among religious groups that, unsurprisingly, encourage people to declare themselves happy or at least discourage them from declaring themselves unhappy. Then what would we know about their actual happiness (assuming that this is a sensible question)? Zilch! Has this been controlled for, and how?

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 15 November 2008 (11:43)

    Well, I don’t know of any work that’s been done to show this, but I am not a specialist. I suspect it would be tricky.
    Suppose we find a class of individuals, in religious groups who have every reason to be unhappy, because non-religious people are unhappy in similar situations (e.g. poor healthcare, economic difficulties, lack of education, etc.), but still claim to be happy. Such groups exist. Does that mean they claim to be happy only because their religion frowns on displays of sadness? Because they are too well-educated to complain about anything? Or simply because, thanks to their religion, they benefit from affective support from fellow-believers, which makes them happier than non-believers even in similar material circumstances?
    One way to get around the problem would be to focus on religions that emphasize the importance of success and happiness, but provide (comparatively) little material and affective care for cult members, and indeed, tend to exploit them (compared to other religions). The Church of Scientology might be an interesting case in that respect: if, in similar circumstances, Scientologists say they are as happy as (or happier than), say, Catholics, while not receiving as much affective support as Catholics, then you may explain the happiness of Scientologists as an effect of the ideology of happiness and achievement that prevails inside the Church.
    But there are too many ifs in this paragraph for my proposition to be realistic. Also, I might have a distorted view of Scientologists.

  • Jesper Soerensen 15 November 2008 (14:59)

    Living in Denmark, it is always interesting to see how the country is used as an example casting doubt upon the alleged link about religiosity and happiness. I believe these studies have two confounding factors, both of them terminological. First, it is not at all clear what is meant by happiness and that people understand the local translations of ’happiness’ in the same way (danish: ’lykkelig’, german: ’glu?cklich’, I suppose). This could seriosly skew selfreports. One way out of this would be aggreeing on some measurable parameters added to selfreport on ’happiness’ — e.g. meaures of particular hormone levels or certain types of behavior. This is, of course, a quite difficult task fraught with problems, but it seems obvious to me that ’happiness’ as used in these studies is not a natural kind and thus has to operationalized somehow besides selfreports. Another serious problem with these studies is the implicit assumption that ’religion’ is really a ’thing’ that can have a of causal effect. What do we mean by religion in this context? The traditional sociological approach used in most studies measures church-attendence as well as selfreport of a number of factors on ’religiosity, such as belief in God. However, studies in cognitive science of religion consistently points to the problems involved in using such reflective propositions as an indicator of religiosity or for that matter as a stable index of behavior. We have no evidence that Danes will sc0re lower on measures of intuitive or counterintuitive beliefs, such as the continuation of the ’soul’ following death or representations that superhuman agents in relation to series of misfortune. If religion (in a technical sense) is a term covering a number of causally independent intuitive / counterintuitive beliefs and behavioural patterns, it must be made clear, what excatly in religion should correlate with ’happiness’ (ritual behavior, beliefs in superhuman agents, beliefs in continuity of the soul etc.?). Without specifying these parameters we cannot point to interesting correlations, nor hypothesize and test for any causal connections.

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 15 November 2008 (15:54)

    No, I do not think people need to agree on natural kinds in order to investigate happiness and religion. People in that field typically don’t claim that self-reported happiness is a natural kind, but there are good reasons to assume that it correlates with many ’positive’ emotions and behaviours. This correlation is enough to make it interesting: you don’t need a well-defined natural kind with rigid boundaries.
    The possible misunderstandings in translation would be a cause for worry only if you could prove that there is a considerable distance between happiness and lykelig, and that this distance is likely to affect the relation between lykelig and religion (for example, if you show that there is a separate word in Danish that specifically indicates religious bliss, so that everything religious is excluded from lykelig). I am almost certain that it is not the case for ”Glück”, ”happiness” and ”bonheur”. There is a connotation of luck in ”bonheur” and ”Glück” that ”happiness” lacks, but I hardly see how it would influence the relationship between these concepts and religion.
    Your second point is easier to adress: in one of the studies I cited, Liesbeth Snoep studies several factors separately: belonging to a church, praying regularly, how often do you go to church, is God important in your life, praying, etc.
    And then again, no one is claiming that religion, as investigated by these studies, is a natural kind. I don’t think that belief in counter-intuitive entities is a good definition of religion, for example. But it is enough that several behaviours, like going to church, believing in God, praying, etc. form interesting and robust correlations.

  • guest guest 18 November 2008 (00:54)

    while I believe that the discussion of confounds in general is productive I think we should take a minute to pause. We are not here discussing whether we can squeese out some conclusion based on some low statistical difference in a pool of 20 something college students. We are talking about repeated surveys all over the world, with thousands of respondents and consistent results. Yes, there may be some people who are not really as happy as they say or vice versa, but having a person in full anonymity telling that he or she is happy as as close as you will ever get to measuring that. If you cannot live without knowing the ultimate, total utter truth of whether someone is really really happy, you might as well stop asking the question. I don’t think though that that is the case for most researchers. It is valid, however, to stipulate that some cultures could in principle have a tendency to be more positive than others. Like Jesper coming from Denmark, I really don’t have the impression that Danes have a tendency to shut up and say they are happy. Quite the contrary actually.

    Another indication that the measure of happiness is not all that confounded is that it does seem to correlate with many different factors (e.g. health and freedom of choice) across cultures. I do believe that the point Jesper made about what part of religion has an effect on happiness is a productive path of investigation. Another good point is the one about causation. As a Dane I would be totally at ease stipulating that happiness has caused the low level of religion, because there is no great market for mystic mirages of future bliss, or true justice lurking somewhere beyond, when you are in general satisfied with your life. So far we can just say that we have correlations, which I think is sufficient. We should device ways to tease out the causal chains, because I think they are a lot more complicated than indicated in this discussion.