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.


  1. My tongue only-partly-in-cheek explanation:

    Protestant -> Catholic = Latin/Mediterranean wife

    Catholic -> Protestant = English /German wife

    Which would make you happier?

  2. Anonymous6:20 AM

    A certain segment of protestant
    to catholic converts are very educated
    and come to the catholic church
    because they seek a continuity with
    the earlier church (some notable
    ones become catholic evangelists).

    I also think they feel as though the
    catholic church has more link w/
    ancient Europe (although these
    converts stress the theological
    rather than the cultural).

    Anyway, these are happy people because they've found an intellectual and spiritual niche.

  3. Anonymous6:23 PM

    It seems weird that the Catholics are about the same whether or not they lose their faith (what do the Catholic-to-Protestants look like), but the Protestants are all over the map: P-n: 1.97; P-P: 1.79; P-C: 1.52.

    This suggests something about Protestantism, but I'm not sure what.

  4. Perhaps Protestant to Catholic converts are more likely to be married because they converted to get married, and married people are happier?

  5. Steve: You're idea makes perfect sense, but even the unmarried converts are a very happy group.

  6. Anonymous10:13 AM

    What about Orthodox Christians? Way to leave them out American scum.

  7. There weren't enough cases of Orthodox Chistrians to analyze them. This is an American sample, and only .6% of Americans are Orthodox, you non-American filth.


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