Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Being raised in a religion, abandoning it, and one's happiness: I'm interested in two questions. First, are people with a religion happier than those who have none? Second, are non-religious people happier if they had no religion as children? I've suspected that if you grow up without involvement in a church and without a faith-based worldview, it might be easier to live without them as an adult. The General Social Survey asked 2,490 Americans about their religious affiliation now (18 years old and up) and the religion of their childhood. They also asked respondents how happy they are, with the following answer-choices: very happy (=1), pretty happy (=2), and not too happy (=3). I list below the mean "unhappiness" scores for each category:

Mean unhappiness score

Protestant to none 1.97
None to none 1.91
Catholic to none 1.83
Stayed Catholic 1.81

USA 1.80

Stayed Protestant 1.79
Stayed Jewish 1.68
None to Protestant 1.68
Protestant to Catholic 1.52

Overall mean unhappiness SD .63

In answer to the first question, the saddest folks are people who currently have no affiliation. The gap between the top and bottom groups is seven-tenths of a standard deviation, which is a large difference.

For the second question, the least happy category are those who were raised Protestant, but who currently have no religion, so there is some support for the idea that losing one's religion is associated with more sadness, but, on the other hand, those who were raised without a faith and who stayed that way are only a few points happier. And those who left their Catholic upbringing are happier than those who never had a church, so this does not support the hypothesis that abandoning a religion makes things more difficult.

And notice how sticking with one's family religion is not the happiest group: changing from Protestantism to Catholicism is. I'm not sure why that would be. I looked, and it doesn't appear that these are highly educated, and thus happier people. Some people do find confession to be very therapeutic. It feels good to be able to, in a ritualized way, shed yourself of mistakes.

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