Bake the Cake Before You Ice It

David Myers, in his book The Pursuit of Happiness, cites a fourth-century (BC) comment by Aristotle that happiness is the “supreme good” and that “all else is merely a means to its attainment.” Similarly, American psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote that “how to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do.” Most of us don’t simply seek to avoid pain, but rather strive to experience pleasure, completeness, and meaning. So if happiness is so important, where is it found? Someone else once said that seeking happiness simply leads to more seeking, like chasing a carrot at the end of a stick. If seeking it doesn’t work, then what are some other ways to become happy?

Happiness can actually be measured, and correlated with individual characteristics, beliefs and behaviors, and many researchers have now done this. Happiness exists on a continuum, ranging from states of oppression, sadness, and hopelessness, all the way to sustained states of genuine happiness or joy. Other words for happiness include psychological well-being and life satisfaction, and there are lots of scales now that can measure these emotional states.

What has research found with regard to characteristics that do and do not correlate with happiness? Almost 35 years ago Warner Wilson wrote a major scientific review of predictors of happiness in the journal Psychological Bulletin. He concluded that the happiest people were those with the most advantages: “[the] happy person emerges as a young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry-free, religious, married person with high self-esteem, high job morale, modest aspirations, of either sex and of a wide range of intelligence.” Research since then has verified some of these characteristics and disproved others.

For example, younger persons are not always happier than older persons. A later review of the research conducted in 1980 found that after controlling for health perceptions, religion, income, and other characteristics, the relationship between age and happiness actually favored older people. Middle age is apparently the time when people are least happy (i.e., ages 45-50), a phenomenon that appears true around the world. Another correlate of happiness is how much money they have (i.e., the “well-paid”). Dave Myers and Ed Diener pointed out in a 1996 issue of Scientific American that income or wealth is not a great predictor of happiness. Increases in income are not associated with proportional increases in happiness. The influence that income has on happiness occurs primarily at very low incomes and after basic needs are met, further increases in income are not associated with proportional increases in happiness.

Therefore, if youth and wealth are not the answer, then what is? One way to happiness might be found in religion. In the Handbook of Religion and Health (2nd ed, 2011), we reviewed all systematic research on religion and happiness published in the English language between 1872 and 2010. We found an amazing 326 peer-reviewed quantitative studies. These studies were conducted in the United States, Canada, Uruguay, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait, Pakistan, India, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Wales, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Hungary, Spain, Malta, Greece, Algeria, Singapore, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, and Malaysia. Of those 326 studies, 256 (almost 80 percent) found that those who were more religious were happier (248 finding statistically significant differences and 8 reporting a trend in that direction). Less than one percent of studies found that the more religious were less happy than the less religious. Of the studies with the best scientific methods, 82 percent found greater happiness among the more religious. The evidence, then, is pretty overwhelming. Religious people do experience greater happiness.

Why is this? One study provides a clue. The relationship between religious involvement and happiness is strongest in poorer countries where people have fewer material resources and technology. A 2009 Gallup Poll surveyed a random sample of 1,000 adults in each of 143 countries around the world. Researchers gave these 143,000 people a series of questions inquiring about how much they enjoyed life, felt respected, and smiled or laughed a lot. They also asked a single question about religion: “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Among counties with an average annual income of $2,000 or less per person, 92 percent indicated that religion was important compared to 44 percent in countries where annual income averaged $25,000 or more. Of particular interest were the relationships they found with happiness.

Among the poorest countries (Uganda, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso), researchers found that the percentage of religious vs. non-religious people who indicated they experienced enjoyment during a lot of the day were: 65 percent of religious vs. 40 percent of non-religious in Uganda, 59 percent vs. 35 percent in Ethiopia, and 58 percent vs. 31 percent in Burkina Faso (these differences remained the same or widened when age, gender, and household income were taken into consideration). Among the wealthiest countries, however, a quite different picture emerged. The positive associations between happiness and religion almost completely disappeared, and in some cases, the non-religious were actually happier than the religious. Overall, 79 percent of the religious said they experienced enjoyment during a lot of the day compared with 77 percent of the non-religious. The reason for these differences between poor and rich countries is unclear. However, I think that people in poor countries have a lot more to cope with than people in wealthy ones, and it is exactly in these high stress circumstances that the benefits of religion as a coping behavior become most evident.

If religious people are happier, then can we secure the holy grail of happiness by becoming more religious? Maybe. Maybe not. Most of the people in these studies did not become religious with the primary goal of becoming happier. I suspect that most became religious for religious reasons, and an unexpected side effect was that they became happier. So happiness is the icing on the cake, not the cake. Indeed, the first commandment (Exodus 20:3) says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Becoming religious solely in order to become happy, then, could backfire. On the other hand, the motives of none of us are completely pure.

So what lesson is there to learn from all this? It’s found in Psalm 118, verse 24: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I try to repeat that every day – especially on the bad ones.

Harold G. Koenig, MD


Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

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