New study suggests that modernization diminishes the importance of religion for people’s happiness

In nations where people’s happiness is more closely linked to religious conformity, it tends to be less strongly linked to subjective freedom, and vice versa, according to new research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

The findings suggest that the “cultural evolution” associated with modernization diminishes “the importance of religious faith for people’s happiness, while increasing the importance of subjective freedom.”

“As a secular person who grew up in a Communist regime, I have always seen religion in the same way as Communism: a manipulation instrument, used primarily in oppressive societies by local elites in order to achieve submission and maintain their privileges without being challenged,” remarked study author Michael Minkov, a doctor of social anthropology and professor of cross-cultural awareness at Varna University of Management in Bulgaria.

“Yet I have often wondered why a free country, like the United States, has a high percentage of religious people.”

For their study, Minkov and his colleague enlisted the company MediaCom to conduct an online survey of 40,534 individuals from 43 nations, which assessed the respondents’ general happiness, adherence to religious rules, and the perception that they’re free to live life as they wish.

A statistical analysis of the data found that the relationship between happiness and religious conformity and the relationship between happiness and subjective freedom varied based on a nation’s economic development and level of cultural collectivism.

In particular, the link between happiness and religious conformity was stronger in more collectivistic nations with less economic development, while the link between happiness and subjective freedom was weaker in these nations.

On the other hand, the link between happiness and subjective freedom was stronger in more individualistic nations with greater economic development, while the link between happiness and religious conformity was weaker in these nations.

“I was not surprised to find that religion tends to brings happiness to people in societies with hard living conditions,” Minkov said. “I suspected that religion must bring some benefits to those who practice it.”

More surprising was the fact that the United States showed a similar pattern to that of less affluent and collectivistic nations. Unlike other highly developed nations, there was a significant link between happiness and religious conformity in the United States.

“The United States is a rich country but it has a lot of inequality and many of its citizens feel underprivileged. Apparently, religion helps them cope with the hardships that they perceive,” Minkov told PsyPost.

“Our findings create a serious dilemma for the national governments of developing countries that ordinary people should also be aware of. One of the main drivers of economic development in the future will be innovation. Multiple studies have shown that most modern innovation comes from rich, individualist societies with secular cultures that allow out-of-the-box thinking.”

“This means that religious conformism has a negative effect on a nation’s ability to innovate. However, if a national government in a developing country attempts to suppress religion, the effect on the citizens’ well-being can be devastating. This is a very difficult dilemma without an easy solution,” Minkov said.

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“We studied the effect of religiousness on happiness, defined as frequent good mood. Other scholars prefer to study a different aspect of happiness: life satisfaction. This is people’s evaluation of the quality of their lives. It is not the same as mood although it may be related to it,” Minkov explained.

“I would like to see studies that examine the effect of religiousness on life satisfaction. I am also interested in the opposite: Does high life satisfaction render religion pointless and is there any cross-cultural variation in this respect?”

“Also, religiousness in our study is defined as adherence to religious rules. This is not the same as religious belief. One of my grandmothers would do religious rituals and follow most Christian behavioral norms even though she did not believe in life after death,” Minkov added.

“Thus, I am not sure that if religiousness is defined and measured in another way, rather than as adherence to rules, the same effect on happiness would be found. There are many studies showing that people who like to help others feel happier than those who do not. Since all religions emphasize the importance of helping, I suspect that ‘I follow all rules of my religion strictly’ contains an element of ‘I help people whenever I can.’ It may be this that accounts for the effect of religiousness on happiness.”

“I hope to see more research in this very interesting and important area,” Minkov concluded.

The study, “Cultural Evolution Shifts the Source of Happiness from Religion to Subjective Freedom“, was authored by Michael Minkov, Christian Welzel, and Michael Schachner.