On Religion and Happiness: Does Orthodoxy Make You Sad?

BridegroomYou may have seen a news article about a recent study by the World Bank that found, among other things, that Eastern Orthodox Christians, as opposed to Protestants and Roman Catholics, tend to report lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction. The authors of that study point to differences in theology, history, and beliefs about economics that may be connected to these findings.

I am not writing to do a “take-down” of the whole study. Now that doctoral school is winding down for me, I am suddenly a little disinterested in debating research methodologies. I also don’t think the study is garbage. As studies go, it’s fine.

I do want to explore the whole idea of a connection between happiness and religious beliefs. Should we expect a connection?

My research mentor and good friend, Dr. Michael Nielsen, wrote a brief summary on the state of the research a few years ago on his famous Psyc of Religion page.

As a therapist, one would think that my primary goal for my clients is happiness. When I ask my clients in our first session, “What goals do you have for counseling?” many of them simply say, “I just want to be happy.”

To which I always ask, “What does it mean, to you, to be happy?”

That’s when things get interesting. In general, people have a hard time being specific about what they mean by a “happy life.” Sometimes my question is regarded as confusing or surprising.

Sometimes, I push a little harder: “And why do you want to be happy? What would you be able to do that you aren’t able to do now?”

People find this easier to answer. “I’d connect with people more. I’d help others instead of just being wrapped up in myself all the time. I’d do better in school. I’d forgive the people who have hurt me. I’d accept myself.”

“What if we just started working on those things now, instead of waiting for happiness to come along? What if it isn’t happiness you’re really searching for? What if you don’t actually need happiness to live the life you want?”

(Okay, I’ll level with you, the dialogue in therapy is never quite so scripted, but the concepts are there.)

The ideas of mental health, well-being, and life satisfaction, as those things are defined by psychology and modern people, are fairly new. They are measured in various ways, such as asking people about their subjective sense of pleasure, or the balance between their “positive” and “negative” emotions (e.g., the PANAS, a scale I used in my own dissertation), or their engagement in meaningful and immersive activities. In fact, there is a considerable debate among positive psychologists about what happiness even is, or whether it can be measured reliably.

So even though “happiness” has become the stated pursuit of modern people, and the metric against which decisions are made and validated (“If it makes you happy…”), I am not sure we are all talking about the same thing.

Not only is happiness hard to define, I am not always sure it is what people really, ultimately want. When people are faced with the choice of getting pleasurable feelings, or doing something worthwhile that gives their life meaning, they very frequently choose the latter, even if it costs them a little mental health in the process. For instance, anyone who has taken care of a newborn baby knows that you lose your mind a bit, due to sleep deprivation, crying, social isolation, etc. The choice to keep taking care of that little “bundle of joy” has more to do with values than happiness. I sometimes call myself a “values-based therapist,” because it seems to me that many clients are ultimately guided and shaped by their values, not the simple pursuit of pleasurable emotions.

To bring this back to the original study, I think I can safely say that religions such as Christianity were certainly not invented to help people have more happiness.

In fact, many early Christians suffered immensely because of their faith. In many ways, a call to the Christian faith was the beginning of a downward slide of happiness culminating in a painful death. Orthodox churches are filled with icons – spiritual images – of many of these early saints. These people seemed to be grasping at something different than pleasure – I’d say something beyond or even more fundamental.

As such, while I think it’s interesting to find correlations between a certain religion and various psychological metrics like happiness (however that is defined), I think it’s unfair to measure religion by its ability to make people happier (or “bring families together,” or increase economic productivity, or improve charitable giving). It would be like measuring poetry by its ability to saw a 2×4 out of a pine log. It wasn’t invented to do that.

So, maybe it’s true that Eastern Orthodoxy negatively effects happiness, as it is defined in this study, and Protestantism boosts happiness. It may also be very beyond the point of either religion.


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