Thursday, July 07, 2011

Church attendance and happiness

In a previous post that took a look at marriage and happiness among the under-thirty crowd, a commenter wondered how church attendance would influence self-reported levels of happiness.

At its vernacular core, Pascal's Wager exhorts one to go through the religious motions and try to believe for a rational reason--the worst that happens to you after you die if you're wrong is the best that happens to the non-believer who is right. Of course, a similar argument could be made in favor of any behavior, no matter how seemingly absurd (and there is no shortage of people who'd say sitting idly in pews for an hour or two a week with the understanding that it'll bring eternal redemption is absurd), if the potential reward is eternal euphoria. I've heard tongue-in-cheek criticisms that there are drawbacks to the churchgoing life, like having less fun on Saturday nights.

Well, maybe the wager needs an update! Drop the eschatological stuff and just focus on the secular life, because those who attend religious services are happier than those who don't (of course correlation does not necessarily equal causation, etc etc). The GSS poses a simple question on self-perceptions of happiness levels. It's measured on a three point scale, inverted here so that higher scores indicate greater happiness. The following table shows average (mean) scores for men and women, by frequency of church attendance*, between the ages of 18-29 at the time of their participation in the survey. For contemporary relevance, only responses from 2000 onward are included (n = 2,610):

LT monthly
LT weekly

One standard deviation is .62. The difference in happiness levels among women who never attend and those who attend regularly is twice as large as it is among comparable groups of men. Women are not only more religious than men are, this also suggests that among those who are seriously committed, women benefit more from religious activities and experiences than men do.

Church and marriage are both positively associated with happiness. So what does the comparison between unmarried, non-attenders and married, churchgoers look like?

Unmarried, no church
Married, weekly+

The gap is more than two-thirds of a standard deviation wide for both sexes. Ladies, don't devote yourselves to yourselves, devote yourselves to your man and to your God. The feminists can suck it--they don't want you to be happy, anyway.

GSS variables used: MARITAL(1)(2-5), HAPPY, SEX, AGE(18-29), YEAR(2000-2010), ATTEND(0)(1-3)(4-6)(7-8)

* My amateur grasp of html programming is precluding the use of the carrot sign to indicate "less than", so an acronym has to suffice.


gwern said...

< or > are how you write the entities

gwern said...

Hah. I inadvertently illustrate the problem. Let's try it again.

"&lt;" or "&gt;"

Audacious Epigone said...


Audacious Epigone said...

Hah, got it, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I really wouldn't surprised by the result. Likewise, I wouldn't be surprised if you tell me statistically Muslims are happier than infidels. People who really believe in religion could always retreat to religions for an answer, albeit an irrational one.

Anonymous said...

I was the one who suggested this post, so I appreciate you doing it. I figured that part of the happiness effect of marriage among 18-29s was the fact that people who marry at that age are far more likely to be churchgoing. It looks like the effects do build on one another to an extent, although it's hard to say which way causation runs. I am married and religious and under 30, so I have my own bias.

Mon said...

"The gap is more than two-thirds of a standard deviation wide for both sexes. Ladies, don't devote yourselves to yourselves, devote yourselves to your man and to your God. The feminists can suck it--they don't want you to be happy, anyway."

Wow, did you just say that?

Devote myself soley to religion and my husband? Oh god, that's sick. And don't call me a feminist either.

Maybe they're so happy because their dillusional enough to actually believe what the Bible says. (i.e. they live in a fantasty world). Have you read that thing? Funny stuff.

I'm a Deist so I have no need to attend church. Also, I will NEVER devote myself to a man. Call me a feminist if it makes you feel better. You seem pretty smart. Do you devote yourself to a man? If you do, good luck.

All in all, I do neither, and my life is quite effing awesome, although a little hard, but it only makes it that much more interesting.

Audacious Epigone said...


Welcome to the blog. I'm more interested in empirical realities than in personal philosophical or cultural predilections. I don't think I have a religious bone in my body. That doesn't change the fact that pious, married folks appear to be happier and more content with their lives than irreligious singles are.