A recent global study reveals that if you’re an “active” participant in religious observance, it’s more likely you’ll describe yourself as “very happy.” But while there may be some health advantages to faith-based practices such as shunning tobacco and alcohol use, among other unhealthy choices, it’s not clear that being a religious observer will keep you healthier.
Those are some of the “topline” results from an analysis of survey data from the United States and “more than two dozen other countries” by the Pew Research Center, an independent think tank based in Washington, D.C., whose work is widely respected.
Noting that many people assert religious believers are, indeed, happier, healthier, and more socially engaged than non-participants, Pew says, “Are religiously active people better off than those who are religiously inactive or those with no religious affiliation? The short answer is that there is some evidence that religious participation does make a difference in some—but not all—of these areas.
”Only 36 percent of religiously active Americans say they’re “very happy” in life, Pew reported, but that number nearly doubles to 71 percent of Mexicans who say they’re active participants in faith. Some 45 percent of religiously active Japanese and Australians reported being “very happy,” the survey said.
Among those who are either “inactive” in their faith or unaffiliated, the happiness numbers drop: 25 percent for both groups in the United States; in the low to mid-30s in Australia and Japan. For those living in Mexico, there’s less than a 10 percent gap.
Health Results Vary
On the health front, Pew reported, things are a bit murkier: only in Taiwan, Mexico, and the United States do active religious participants say they’re in better health than others. However, the group notes, many religious participants don’t outpace their non-observant peers when it comes to obesity or frequency of exercise.
But temperance seems to help, the study found. “Religions often frown on certain unhealthy behaviors, and that tendency seems reflected in data on smoking and drinking. In all but two of 19 countries for which data are available, the actively religious are less likely than the unaffiliated to smoke, and, in all but one country, less likely than the inactively religious to do so,” the report states, noting actively religious people “tend to drink less” than others surveyed.
On the civil engagement side, actively religious people are generally more likely to join such nonreligious organizations as local charities or clubs. They’re also more likely to vote than the religiously unaffiliated.
As interesting as this data might be, it’s not wise to reach sweeping conclusions on the basis of one report. It’s also worth noting that the manner in which questions are posed might have an influence on the responses received. (This is not to suggest any bias on the part of the survey-takers, just to state a somewhat obvious fact of public opinion research.)
And let’s remember, too, that these surveys measure self-reported public opinion. They’re not scientific studies of verifiable data measurements, as happens in medical research, for example. In other words: It’s a good idea to view these findings with, perhaps, a grain of salt.
At the same time, the overall report of better health and happiness outcomes by active participants in religion in the United States and Mexico—to name two nations—does bear some consideration. Readers in the United States will understand, and often acknowledge, the hectic pace of today’s life and the toll such living often takes.
In 2010, for example, the Center for American Progress offered a grim assessment of middle-class life: “The typical American middle-income family put in an average of 11 more hours a week in 2006 than it did in 1979.” It’s not impossible to surmise that the toll of the 2008 recession and the rise of robotics and the “gig economy” have made those workweeks longer, not shorter, for many people struggling to keep up.
More than Data Crunching
Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the positive effects of active religious faith is not to be found in surveys but in individual lives. Many of us have seen, or heard, or read the testimonies of those who found a complete turnaround in their lives for the better when they found an active relationship with Jesus and began following the ways He promoted.
You may even have one of those testimonies yourself. If so, let us know in the comments below!
It’s unclear if John Newton, the seventeenth-century slave ship captain whose life changed when he found Christian faith, enjoyed markedly better health afterward, although he lived to age 82 before passing to his rest. But Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” rings down through the centuries as a testimony to the happiness that finding peace with God gave him.