The 2018 edition of the World Happiness Report is out, and it shows pretty much what other recent reports have shown: Western European countries are the world’s happiest, the poor countries of Africa and the Middle East are the world’s unhappiest, and Finland has moved into the #1 spot. A new aspect of the report deals with immigration, and finds that immigrants quickly tend to approach the happiness of the countries to which they moved. This is expected because, after all, immigrants usually move to where they expect to find a better life.
The report is carried out and prepared by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and “happiness” is simply inhabitants’ self-report of their state of mental well-being. The study found, as always, that happiness is strongly correlated with variables like income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. (Note: religiosity isn’t mentioned, at least not that I can find.)
Click on the screenshot to access the full report (you have to download individual chapters and the appendices):
And, here are the rankings, from happiest to unhappiest countries, with the statistical analysis of what factors contributed to the overall happiness, which is measured on a scale from zero to eight (data from this part of the report).
Most of the top 20 countries are from Western Europe or are Anglophone, while, with the exception of Ukraine, all the 20 bottom countries are from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This is similar to the results of last year’s report.
Here’s a map of happiness measured in 2017. Greenest countries are the happiest (scores above 5.0; darker green indicates real happiness), while red and blackish-brown countries are the unhappy ones (scores below 5.0). You can see that misery correlates with social well-being, including poverty. But it also correlates (negatively) with religiosity.
As I said, the self-perceived happiness of people is highly correlated with their income, health, freedom, and social support, which explains the patterns above. But I’m absolutely sure, based on partial surveys I’ve reported before, that happiness is also, across all countries, strongly and negatively correlated with their religiosity. That is, the most religious countries (which happen to be those in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa) are the unhappiest, while the most atheistic countries—those in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, as well as Australia and Canada—are the happiest. (The U.S., which is the most religious First World nation, ranks as #18.)
It would be lovely if some reader with extra time correlated religiosity with happiness. I’ll bet $50 the correlation is negative and statistically significant. Reader Gluon Spring did a correlation two years ago with some of the data, and here’s the result, with the 95% confidence interval around the regression line:
No wonder people ignore religiosity when they’re analyzing happiness! Who but a petulant atheist would even make a plot like this?
Of course correlations are not causation, and the negative correlation that I expect between religiosity and happiness does not mean that atheism makes people happier, or religion unhappier. What it means—and this is supported by several sociological studies (see here for one)—is likely that people either turn to religion or maintain their religion when their social situation is so dire that they’re unhappy. When conditions are good, and there’s lots of social support, including help for sick people, old people, free medical care, and so on, then there’s no need to be religious, no need to supplicate a god for what your society can’t provide. When you’re well off, your country gradually loses religion, the thesis of Norris and Inglehart in the preceding link.
In short, what makes people happy is not religion, but material well being and the assurance of material aid. That’s supported by the study’s finding that immigrants, including Muslims from the Middle East, quickly gain the happiness of their new country, while (I suspect), still keeping their religion, though perhaps in an attenuated form.
Religion is simply what you do when you don’t have well being.
I always quote Marx on this point. I’m not a Marxist, but here’s one place he was right:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
—Karl Marx (1843)