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Religion makes people happy, so why is church attendance declining?

Is religion a ‘crutch for the weak’? This column looks at data on religion and life satisfaction from across the globe and argues that it might just be insurance for the unhappy.

Modern happiness research leaves no doubt that religious people are happier than their contemporaries. And the causality runs from religion to happiness (though it might also be possible that religious people are less interested in material aspects and, therefore, less affluent).

  • One of the studies supporting this assumption was provided by Headey et al. (2010). Based on data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, they find that individuals who turn to religion over time become, ceteris paribus, more satisfied, while those turning away from it suffer a loss in their quality of life.
  • A comparison of multivariate estimates of happiness functions shows that, even when controlling for other influences, deism is highly positively correlated with life satisfaction across all countries (Frey and Stutzer 2002, Dolan et al. 2008, Frey 2010).

In the US, for example, 48% of those who describe themselves as "very happy" attend church service at least once a week; this compares to a share of merely 26% made up by those who never go to church (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2007).

But the relevance of these results is not only restricted to the individual level. Focusing on whole countries as units of measurement, receding religiousness could be a predictor of a decline in life quality, all other factors held constant. Given the fact that life satisfaction eventually also influences productivity, it becomes clear why the topic should be policy relevant.

National level religiousness

So what do the statistics about religiousness reveal? Are people – as one could be tempted to conclude – streaming into the churches? Studies have shown that most people are indeed religious. 70% of the global population, i.e. more than 4.5 billion people worldwide, regard religion as being "an important aspect of their everyday lives" (Diener et al. 2011). Yet, there are tremendous differences among countries.

While religion is a firm pillar of societal life in developing countries, most citizens in industrial nations do not consider it to be an important component of their lives. It is instructive to contrast the following rates indicating the percentage of people that declare to have integrated religion into their daily lives:

  • For Bangladesh, Egypt, and Sri Lanka, the rate is as high as 99%, closely followed by Indonesia, Laos, and Senegal (98%).

This is in stark contrast especially to Scandinavian countries.

  • In Sweden and Denmark, the rates amount to only 16% and 19%, respectively.
  • The rate is somewhat higher in English-speaking countries, e.g. 30% in the UK, 32% in Australia, 45% in Canada.
  • In the US, it adds up to 66%.

And yet, the general divide between developed and developing countries with respect to religiousness remains.

Moreover, there has been a marked decline in the significance of organised religion in rich countries over time. This development has led to a situation where most people in these countries are atheistic, or at least not religious.

How can we make sense, then, of the resulting puzzle: Religion creates happiness, but people living in those countries with the highest life satisfaction are increasingly turning their back on it?

Church attendance

The data unmistakably reveals a clear trend. A country’s economic situation critically influences its citizens' religiousness. People living under harsh conditions with low per-capita income and life satisfaction are much more likely to be religious. Religiousness will then increase their life satisfaction. In fact, religion can be seen as a sort of "insurance". Their belief at least partly helps people cope with difficult life situations. Also, religion offers supportive and integrative institutions, which accompany their members in difficult times. Herein, the social contacts that churches help establish and foster are crucial. Happiness research shows that interaction with others is of utmost importance for subjective wellbeing. As Diener et al. (2011) demonstrate, these results hold for all major religions – for Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims alike.


The combination of facts allows the following conclusions to be drawn:

  • Churches tend to lose members during stable and economically prosperous times.
  • They stand to gain members notably when economic, political, and other societal conditions are harsh.

The comparative advantage of churches therefore consists in providing support and stability in times of insecurity – a function that neither the economy nor the state fulfil. This applies especially to the psychological strain under which many people nowadays suffer. In his book "Happiness: Lessons from a New Science", Richard Layard, an English happiness researcher who is also member of the Upper House, forcefully argues that one of the central problems of modern life consists in the fact that many individuals are no longer able to orient themselves in the economy and in society at large. In this respect, churches can fulfil an important function.

Editors' note: A similar article was published on Oekonomenstimme. Sept. 20, 2011


Diener, Ed, Louis Tay, and David G Myers (2011), “The Religion Paradox: If Religion Makes People Happy, Why Are So Many Dropping Out?”, Journal of Personality and Social Pysychology, 101(2):354-365.
Dolan, Paul, Tessa Peasgood and Mathew White (2008), “Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being”, Journal of Economic Psychology, 29:94-122.
Frey, Bruno S (2010), Happiness. A Revolution in Economics, MIT Press.
Frey, Bruno S and Alois Stutzer (2002), Happiness and Economics, Princeton University Press.
Headey, Bruce, Jürgen Schupp, Ingrid Tucci, and Gerd Wagner (2010), “Authentic happiness theory supported by impact of religion on life satisfaction: A longitudinal analysis with data for Germany”, Journal of Positive Psychology, 5:73-82.
Layard, Richard (2005), Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Penguin Books.



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