The Happiness of Believers

Do religious belief and practice affect the happiness of Europeans? In the first part of this two-part article, to answer our question we focused on the European Values Study. In this second part we deal with results from the European Social Survey.

For an empirical analysis of the effect of religion on happiness, we use data from three waves (2002/2003, 2004 and 2006) of the European Social Survey (ESS) covering 114,019 individuals in 24 different countries. These provide information on personal characteristics such as gender, age, income, subjective general health, marital status, main activity, number of children and the educational level of each individual, among other things.

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As indicators of religion, we have two groups of variables. A first group, about “religious belief”, considers questions such as: “Do you belong to a particular religion?” (yes or no), “What religion or denomination do you belong to?” (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Other Christian denomination, Jewish, Islam, Eastern religions, Other non-Christian religions), and “How religious are you?” (on a scale from 0, “not at all religious” to 9, “very religious”).

The second group proxies for “religious practice” and consists of the queries: “How often do you attend religious services, apart from special occasions?” and “How often do you pray, apart from religious services?”, with responses ranging from “every day”, “more than once a week”, “once a week”, “at least once a month”, “only on special holy days”, “less often”, to “never”. As with most studies on economics and happiness, we make use of the question, “How happy are you?”, to which the respondent answers on a scale from 1, which stands for “not happy at all”, to 10, which stands for “completely happy”.

On average, happiness among the 24 European countries is 7.26, but with great differences ranging from 5.54 for Ukraine to 8.32 for Denmark. We also find significant differences in the religion variables. The countries with the lowest proportion of individuals belonging to a particular religion are Estonia and the Czech Republic, while those with the highest proportion are Greece, Poland, Portugal and Ireland. Similarly, there is evidence of differences between “religious belief” and “religious practice” variables. For example, the proportion of people belonging to a religion in Spain is 74 per cent (12 points above the mean average), although individuals attending services and praying report a mean lower than the European average.


Religion and Happiness are Correlated

When we ran statistical tests looking for correlations between happiness and religion variables, the main results were as follows:

1. There is a significant effect of belonging to a religion on happiness. Those who belong to a religion report higher levels of happiness than those who do not.

2. The religion or denomination has a significant effect on happiness. Protestants, other Christian religions and Roman Catholics report higher happiness levels whereas Orthodox and Eastern religions report the lowest.

3. There seems to be a positive relationship between how religious a person is and happiness: the more religious, the happier. However, those who consider themselves “not at all religious” (0) have comparable levels of happiness to those who give themselves a 5 in the scale of religiosity.

4. Frequency of attendance at services is likewise positively correlated with happiness: those who attend religious services every day say they are happier than those who never attend.

5. Frequency of prayer is positively correlated with happiness, with those who pray every day reporting higher levels of happiness than those who never pray.

6. Frequency of attendance in services is a more relevant variable than frequency of prayer in the self-reported happiness levels.


Explaining the Religion-Happiness Link

From the perspective of the psychology of religion, Nielsen (1998) provides three possible explanations for the positive link between religion and happiness.

The first refers to the social support. People are happier when they find themselves in a supportive environment and religion offers this. That could explain why the beneficial influence of religion on happiness is strongest among people who need support the most, such as the elderly, the sick and those who are single. Moreover, religion allows people to feel themselves closer to God, also viewed as a source of support. Economics literature expresses this same idea, inasmuch as religion could serve as insurance during negative shocks (Chen 2003) and a source of both direct (education) and indirect social benefits (health, work) (Glaeser et al. 2000, Finke and Stark 1998).

Secondly, people with firm beliefs, those who have a sense of what is important and an orientation in life, tend to be happier (Ellison 1991). Religion supplies people with such beliefs. This aspect of religion may have to do with the greater membership success of conservative churches (Kelley 1972). Although stricter and more demanding in morals and practice, they offer greater certitude in beliefs.

Thirdly, religion itself may contribute to happiness by triggering positive experiences, such as a feeling of being in contact with God (transcendence) or with others (Pollner 1989).

How do these explanations from the psychology of religion test with the statistical findings set out above? They undoubtedly support (1) “Those who belong to a religion report higher levels of happiness than those who do not”, (3) “The more religious a person, the happier”, (4) “The frequency of attendance at services is positively correlated with happiness” and (5) “The frequency of prayer is positively correlated with happiness”. But we do not find them helpful in explaining (2) “The religion or denomination to which the individual belongs has a significant effect on happiness” and (6) “Frequency of attendance in services is a more relevant variable than frequency of prayer in the self-reported happiness levels”.

Regarding (2), which refers to the varying correlations between particular religions or denominations and self-reported happiness, the psychology of religion seems to imply that Protestant religions provide greater social support, firmer beliefs and more positive religious experiences –or any combination of the three— than Eastern Orthodox religions, for example. However, we do not have evidence for this. The lumping together of various Protestant religions, other Christian religions and Eastern Orthodox churches does not allow us to calibrate the social support, firm beliefs and religious experiences associated with each.

Neither do we have a straightforward explanation for (6), which suggests that frequency of attendance at services is more significant than frequency of prayer for happiness. Certainly, attendance at services could provide more social support than prayer, which could be done individually. But attendance at religious services does not necessarily imply firmer beliefs nor more positive religious experiences. (Some religions may just emphasize private prayer more than community worship.) We do not know, nor can we tell with the available data. We would have to tease out the individual effects of social support, firm beliefs and religious experience from their cumulative effect on happiness, for attendance at services and for prayer. But again that is not possible with the available information.


Insights from the Sociology of Religion

Furthermore, there are other dimensions to both religious belief and practice than those considered by the ESS. Here is where inputs from the sociology of religion come in handy. The sociology of religion offers insights to better understand the underlying notions of religious belief and practice and the tensions between them. It also sheds light on the relationship between the individual and the group through mediating institutions such as the Church, the State and the market.

What could be meant by “religious belief” in this context? Starting out with the British experience (Davie 1994), and later on extending it to the rest of Europe and America (Berger et al. 2008), Davie suggests that “religious belief” mainly refers to feelings, experiences and the numinous, as could be associated with the New Age movement, for example. It does not refer to creedal statements with precise and specific contents. It is a profession in an “ordinary God” (Abercrombie et al. 1970), not a God “who can change the course of heaven and earth” (Davie 1994: 1). Philosophically, this corresponds to the God of deism: one who, after creation, soon left human beings to their own devices. Although nominally Christian, belief here represents a non-institutional religiosity; it is belief that has been privatized, becoming invisible and implicit. It also goes under the names of “popular”, “common”, “customary”, “folk”, “civic” or “civil religion”. Rather than the absence of belief, it is an individually customized patchwork of beliefs. Therefore, apart from the categories of belief and unbelief, the degrees of religiosity and institutional religions, it would be interesting to look into the range of non-institutional religiosity and test it against happiness.

And how are we to understand “religious practice”? Again, for Davie (1994) and colleagues (Berger et al. 2008), this “belonging” covers a wide range of behaviors, from religious orthodoxy to ritual participation and an instrumental attachment to religion. They fall under what she calls “vicarious religion”, meaning that although an individual does not want to be personally involved with a church, he nonetheless wants the church to be there for other people or society as a whole (Berger et al. 2008: 15) as seen, for instance, in the role of churches in expressing national grief or mourning. Therefore, besides data for frequency of attendance at services and prayer, there are other forms of religious practice such as “vicarious religion” that can be analyzed in relation to happiness.

Lastly, there are two basic models that relate the individual to the group in the religious sphere: the traditional, historic or established church and the church as a voluntary association in the faith market (Berger et al. 2008: 16-7). The first is dominant in Europe, whereas the second exists mainly in the United States. The traditional church, much like the State, exercises a monopoly over the faithful who do not belong to it by choice, but by default or obligation. In many countries, this is the “national church” understood as a ministry of the State. The church which arises through voluntary adherence, on the other hand, follows the market model. In lieu of an established church is a market where various churches compete. In some cases, however, the same faith group may adopt the traditional mode in one place and the voluntary mode in another, as with the Catholic Church in Europe and in the US, for instance. In general, the decline in religious belief and practice or “secularization” has affected traditional churches more than churches of voluntary adherence.

We think that the status of religion –whether traditional or voluntary— affects not only the levels of belief and practice, but also the level of happiness. Countries with the traditional model of religion will have lower levels of religious belief and practice than those with the voluntary model due to the latter’s internal “locus of control”. It is also probable that followers of voluntary religion will report higher levels of happiness than those of traditional religion. But again, unfortunately, this cannot be confirmed with the available data.

As a final remark, despite positive correlations obtained between religious belief and practice, on the one hand, and happiness, on the other, results would have to be nuanced by a better understanding of both religious belief and practice. For some religions, belief cannot be separated that easily from belonging or practice and vice-versa. It could also very well be the case that religion is more than just a means for achieving happiness through the satisfaction of psychological needs.


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Abercrombie, N, Baker, J., Brett, S. and Foster, J. (1970): “Superstition and religion: the God of the gaps”. In D. Martin and M. Hill (eds.), A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain, 3, London: SCM, 91-129.

Berger, P., Davie, G. and Fokas, E. (2008): Religious America, Secular Europe?: A Theme and Variations, Aldershot & Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Chen, C.W.S., Chiang, T.C. and So, M.K.P. (2003),Asymmetrical reaction to US stock-return news: evidence from major stock markets based on a double-threshold model”, Journal of Economics and Business, 55, 5-6, 487-502.

Davie, G. (1994): Religion in Britain since 1945. Believing without Belonging. Oxford, U.K & Cambridge, U.S.A.: Blackwell.

Ellison, C.G. (1991): “Religious involvement and subjective well-being”, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 32, 80-99.

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Finke, R. and Stark, R. (1998): “Religious Choice and Competition”, American Sociological Review, 63 (5), 761-766.

Glaeser, E., Laibson, D., Scheinkman, J. and Soutter, C. (2000): “Measuring trust’”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 65 (3), 811–46.

Kelley, M.W. (1972): Why Conservative Churches are Growing. New York: Harper & Row.

Nielsen, M.E. (1998): “An assessment of religious conflicts and their resolutions”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 181-190.

Pollner, M. (1989): “Divine relations, social relations, and well-being”, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 30, 92-104.


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