3/22/10

The Gloomy Atheists

Carol Graham's book Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires is full of "paradoxes"... about those peasants and millionaires, more later.  One of the most head-scratching is about religiosity.  In a study of 90,000 people across 26 European countries, Andrew Clark and Orsolya Lelkes found that "to belong to a religion is positively correlated with life satisfaction."  You can see how that might be.  Belonging increases the chances of believing.  And believing increases optimism ("God will provide, protect, prevent, etc."), which is strongly correlated with greater happiness.

Now here's the surprising part.  Everyone is more satisfied with life in areas that are more religious, including the atheists.  And everyone is less satisfied in places with more atheists. "Having a higher proportion of atheists has a negative spillover effect for the religious and for atheists alike."  Apparently, to some considerable extent, our attitudes about life are held collectively.  We don't individualistically base our outlook simply on the beliefs lodged within our own skulls.

The moral of the story is...what?  Stay away from atheists?  Send your kids to Sunday School, whether you believe or not?  There are puzzles like this throughout the book.  If we thought maximizing happiness was the prime directive, the book would lead to many very counter-intuitive choices and policy recommendations.

7 comments:

amos said...

I'm a bit skeptical about comparative happiness studies.
In some cultures, it is almost an obligation to act happy and to claim to be happy, for example, in Brasil, while in others acting as if one were overly happy is considered to be in bad taste. I may be able to compare how happy I am now that I won the Templeton Prize compared with how happy I was when I was a new atheist and poor, but can you compare how happy is a dancer in the Carnaval of Rio, who exudes happiness and will claim to be deliriously joyous, even if she is on the verge of suicide, with Queen Elizabeth, who has been educated to never grin, never joke, and to never say that she is happy.

Emily said...

"And everyone is less satisfied in places with more atheists." I was going to ask what confounding variables could possibly influence this result, but it seems Amos has already come up with some. I wonder what others? I guess I'm not convinced by that statistic: I'd like to read the studies for myself.

Jean Kazez said...

I've had the same thought about different attitudes as to whether one is "supposed to be" happy, but this book does a lot to dispel the worry. The surveys reveal certain cross-cultural commonalities that you wouldn't get, if they didn't capture real differences in happiness. For example, there's a consistent age effect across all cultures. The graphs for all countries show a U shaped curve, with happiness lowest in middle age. I don't think you can dismiss all this research.

This particular finding is awfully surprising, but they studied 90,000 people in 26 countries. That's a lot of data! The reference is to an unpublished "mimeo". I will be interested to see if it gets published (and if not, why not?).

amos said...

I'm still skeptical about happiness studies, except comparing one person's happiness at one moment in her life to that in another moment. Happiness is so subjective, and others may see you as happy, while you consider yourself to be unhappy. For example, a lifelong friend and I both took the same online happiness test, perhaps not the most "scientific" test. I and other friends perceive him as a happy, enthusiastic, positive,
at times joyous person. I am generally seen as negative, overly critical, a chronic complainer, etc. However, I scored higher on the happiness scale than he did. We compared our results, and the big difference is that I have a "je ne regrette rien" attitude to life: whatever I did, I did, and if I hadn't done it, I wouldn't be the person who is wise enough now to repent of having done it. That attitude, which doesn't make me exactly happy, raised my happiness score. My friend, on the other hand, regrets past mistakes, which lowered his happiness score. Measuring my happiness against yours is like measuring my anger or my love against yours. However, I can measure my anger today against my anger yesterday.

Jean Kazez said...

A lot of happiness research works that way--it looks for certain kinds of beliefs about the world, and infers happiness from that. Other research is more direct (eg Graham's research is more direct), asking people how often they smiled yesterday, and things like that.

I don't see why you shouldn't take the test results as revealing something about you and your friend that doesn't meet the eye. Your "je ne regret rien" attitude may in fact make a difference to your mood.

There are too many consistent findings to dismiss happiness research. For example, the research shows very consistently that people are almost as happy after they suffer a permanent disability. However, a chronic illness with an uncertain outcome lowers happiness a lot.

You might have some doubts about this result or that, but I can't see dismissing all of happiness research.

amos said...

Exactly, we seem to agree that the strongest part of happiness research is that which measures my happiness today against my happiness tomorrow and which shows that winning the lottery or having a disability doesn't change my basic happiness level much or at all. That makes a lot of sense and seems to fit with my perception of how I and others function. It is interesting but that idea is consistent with Stoic philosophy, that money, love, health are only preferred indifferents and that only virtue which is synonymous for the Stoics with reason and with happiness counts.

articulett said...

Religiosity is highly associated with societal ills. Though Gregory Paul shows that highly anxious people are better off with religion, the more religious an area of the country is, the greater number of social problems you will find: homicide, drug addiction, mental illness etc. http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf

If you want to believe that religious people are happier, I'm sure you can find evidence to support that belief, but there is also much evidence to make us ask more questions. Why does the religious Utah have the highest use of Prozac in the nation? Were Prozac users counted in the statistics on happiness?