It seems inevitable that every year, the Christmas season will bring out those killjoys who want to make strident calls for atheism, multiculturalism, and secularism. The season used to bring out critics of commercialism and overspending, but they’ve been drowned out by the people who want us to make room for people of all faiths – especially, of course, those with no faith at all.
It’s interesting, therefore, that a study should land in the middle of all of this fuss, proclaiming that religious people are the happiest American adults. The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture surveyed more than 15,000 Americans, asking them to rate themselves on a scale of happiness. Those who attended religious services weekly were far more likely to rate themselves as “very happy” than those who never attend.
Though perhaps the most comprehensive study done on the subject, it’s far from the first. And every time the question is asked, the answer is the same. There’s something about religion – and especially about regular religious services – that makes people happier. The other question, of course, is why?
Casting About for Answers
And this is where the media has a field day. In article after article, you’ll find those same killjoys who want to take Christ out of Christmas trying to find a secular explanation for the happiness of the religious. It couldn’t be God, of course. They won’t even pretend to entertain the thought. So what is it? Many scholars have concluded that the answer lies in the stronger friendships and increased community service. But that conclusion is hampered by surveys that control for those answers. In other words, when you compare religious people with secularists who have lots of friends and do lots of community service, the result is the same. The religious are still happier.
So maybe it’s all the singing, say the straw-graspers. Maybe religious people are healthier, eschewing vices like drugs and alcohol because their holy books forbid it. Or maybe it’s all the rituals and symbolism. Somehow.
I think there’s an easy answer that’s too often overlooked. A 2013 Pew survey showed that those with a strong belief in God were most likely to disagree with the statement, “Life has no purpose.” And I think it is in that result that we can find the real reason the religious are happier. Even for the charmed and the privileged, life can be a rough journey. In between the highlights, the average American will experience the death of loved ones, the stress of a job they hate, pitfalls, financial troubles, and much more. All of this is given greater weight by the immutable human fact that the future is unknown. Things could get better, but they could always get worse. You just never know.
And it is in these dark times that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths have a rock to which they can turn. And while there’s not a scientific study yet devised that can prove it, I believe that anyone who practices their faith can feel God’s strength within them. Does that mean that everything will turn out A-ok? Of course not. The end game – as far we can know to a certainty – is death. But that desolate outcome is mitigated if you believe that it wasn’t all for nothing.