Arthur Brooks on Religion and Happiness

In Arthur Brooks' Gross National Happiness, he makes a great deal of the effect of religiosity on happiness. And there is no disputing the data: in the United States, religious participation is positively correlated with higher levels of self-reported happiness. But he makes rather too much of it, I think, largely because he has decided not to take into account international comparisons but rather stick exclusively with evidence from the U.S. I think this is a huge mistake.

In the AEI forum Thursday, Brooks responded to my criticism by correctly pointing out that cross-country comparisons can be muddied by various cultural differences. Sure. But if you are more or less thoroughly satisfied with the general validity of survey measures, as Brooks claims to be, then there is really no principled reason not to compare results between the United States and Western Europe, which aren't all that different. Indeed, the differences that do show up in the data are very telling, and they cut strongly against both the substance and rhetoric of Brooks' strongly pro-religion argument.

I think Brooks is rather too willing to slide from local individual-level correlations — for example, that other things equal, religious folks in the United States say they are happier — to macro-level generalizations — for example, that more religious cultures are generally happier ones. At one point, Brooks implies that the ACLU is hurting national happiness by fighting against public displays of religion.

What you do not learn in the chapter on religion in Gross National Happiness is that countries with some of the lowest levels of religious participation in the world, such as Denmark, Norway, or Finland show up again and again in international rankings as some of the world's happiest places, usually ahead of the U.S. Moreover, many of the most religious places on Earth are deeply miserable.

You'd think this would be relevant. But Brooks just doesn't bring it up. He seemed to me to encourage the idea that the relationship between religiosity and happiness is deep, perhaps universal. But it just isn't. According to a 2007 paper by Lisbeth Snoep in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant individual-level correlation between religiosity and happiness in the countries she looked at: Denmark and the Netherlands — both among the happiest countries. In his concluding chapter, one of Brooks' “Happiness Lessons for our Leaders” is “America must defend it's tradition of religious faith.” But it's really hard to see why.

Please compare these two charts (click for full size):

That's from Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide.

And that's from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox“[pdf].

Secularization has been rapid in much of Europe over the last several decades. But according to Stevenson and Wolfers' recent paper, happiness has been steadily increasing there all the while — unlike in the U.S., where the measured trend has been flat. It doesn't take an econometric wizard to eyeball the relationship: religion down, happiness up. Doesn't this fact simply devastate Brooks' strong implication that secularization is antagonistic to national happiness? Yes it does.

Note that you don't have to believe in cross-country happiness comparisons to take this seriously. All you have to note is that average happiness rose while rates of religious participation fell here, here, here, here, and here, etc. And then, given that fact, Brooks may owe us a special story about why he doesn't think that relationship would hold in the United States, too.

So what are we left with? Brooks rightly points out that in the U.S. a great number of community organizations are anchored in religion. And sociality and community are key to happiness. So, sure, non-religiosity in the U.S. is likely to be a socially alienating and stigmatized kind of non-conformism. I'm trying to track down a paper I think is in the Diener and Suh collection, Culture and Subjective Well-Being, which I recall as saying something to the effect that a good individual fit with prevailing cultural values predicts self-reported happiness. So, for example, people with collectivist values are more likely to be happy in a collectivist society than are people with individualist values in collectivist cultures. But, overall, individualist societies tend to be happier. It seems to me that Brooks has simply found that America has a religious culture, and therefore it's less trouble to be religious in the U.S., not that religiosity has some kind of deep connection to happiness.

But Brooks writes:

You may not go to church — you may be an atheist. But if you enjoy living in a happy country, you can thank — well, you can thank your lucky stars–that so many of your American compatriots are religious.

Looking at the data, this strikes me as conservative bluster. Almost all the countries that consistently score higher than the U.S. in happiness are much less religious. While conservatives and the religious are indeed more likely to say they are happy in the U.S., it would be a simple error to infer that “gross national happiness” would be damaged were the culture to become less conservative or religious. In fact, cross-national data seem strongly to suggest the opposite. Perhaps we should thank our lucky stars for the salutary influence of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris!