The Ennui of Saint Teresa
On average, religious people are much happer than nonreligious ones.
BY ARTHUR C. BROOKS Sunday, September 30, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
For more than a half century, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was revered for her service to the poorest of the poor, and inspired people by the joy she apparently derived from pure faith and charity. But earlier this year, it was revealed that her faith and happiness might not have been all they seemed. In a newly published set of letters written over the course of her adult life, she expresses terrible sorrow about her life, describing it in terms of "dryness," "darkness" and "sadness."
For some commentators, this was evidence that if we scratch the surface of religious conviction--even that of a future saint--we will tend to find unhappiness, echoing H.L. Mencken's claim that "God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable."
Does Mother Teresa's apparent misery truly expose an inconvenient truth about the happiness of religious people? A convincing answer to this question is not to be found in arguments for or against religion by believers or atheists--but rather in the abundant surveys that for years have anonymously asked people about their faith and life satisfaction. What story do the data tell?
Americans can be divided into three groups when it comes to religious practice. Surveys indicate that about 30% attend houses of worship at least once per week (I will call them "religious"), while about 20% are "secular"--never attending. The rest attend sometimes, but irregularly. These population dimensions have changed relatively little over the decades: Since the early 1970s, the religious group has not shrunk by more than two or three percentage points.
How do religious Americans compare to the secular when it comes to happiness? In 2004, the General Social Survey asked a sample of Americans, "Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" Religious people were more than twice as likely as the secular to say they were "very happy" (43% to 21%). Meanwhile, secular people were nearly three times as likely as the religious to say they were not too happy (21% to 8%). In the same survey, religious people were more than a third more likely than the secular to say they were optimistic about the future (34% to 24%).
The happiness gap between religious and secular people is not because of money or other personal characteristics. Imagine two people who are identical in every important way--income, education, age, sex, family status, race and political views. The only difference is that the first person is religious; the second is secular. The religious person will still be 21 percentage points more likely than the secular person to say that he or she is very happy.
Researchers have found similar results in other countries, suggesting that the connection between happiness and faith probably doesn't depend on nationality. Nor does it depend on the particular faith practiced. The 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey shows that practicing Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and people from other religions--even esoteric and New Age faiths--are all far more likely than secularists to say they are happy. Furthermore, it does not matter if we measure faith in ways other than how often people go to their house of worship. For example, people who pray every day are a third likelier to be very happy than those who never pray, whether or not they attend services.
What about the folks in the middle, who identify with a faith but practice inconsistently? They are generally happier than secular people, but not as happy as regular practitioners. There is an interesting twist here, however, when it comes to the fear of death. One recent study on a sample of older Americans finds that, by the time people are in their 70s, religious and secular people are less afraid of the grave than those in the middle, suggesting that people suffer when their religious practice is inconsistent with their faith.
Obviously, not all religious people are happy--millions are not. Researchers in one 2006 study found that what makes some religious people unhappy is an image of God as severe, unloving or distant. The study shows that regular churchgoers who feel "very close to God" are 27% more likely to be very happy than churchgoers who do not feel very close to God. This may have been the trouble for Mother Teresa.
Unhappy religious folks are the exception to the rule, however, and the percentage gaps in happiness identified here still translate into many, many more millions of contented churchgoers than nonbelievers. Based on the current American population, we can roughly estimate that about 67 million American adults are "very happy." About 25 million of these folks are religious--but only eight million are secular.
All in all, there is no good reason to doubt the claim that religion is associated with happiness for most people. Mother Teresa was atypical in her service and charity. But she was also atypical in her sadness, in spite of her religious life.
Mr. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Who Really Cares" (Basic Books, 2006).