Does religion ever make people less happy? The answer is yes — under certain circumstances. Naturally, religion contributes to unhappiness when it triggers or aggravates conflicts. There’s also evidence that within Christianity, Catholic believers are generally more prone than others to anxiety and distress — in other words, “Catholic guilt” may be more than just a cliché. “Protestant traditions (particularly . . . the more conservative and Evangelical traditions) often emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the role of grace . . . whereas Catholics often focus on penance for one’s sins and the importance of doing good works as a means to salvation,” explains Michael Steger in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, a journal of the American Psychological Association. “These differing emphases may in turn prompt differential psychological functioning.”
Across denominations and religions, the concept of hell is associated with stress and negative emotions. To demonstrate this, psychologists at the University of Oregon and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia dug into a survey of 250,000 people in 63 countries. Most were self-described Christians or Muslims, but nearly 22,200 adhered to other religions. (Depictions of hell(s) exist within Buddhism and Hinduism, but they differ from the ideas found in the Abrahamic traditions.)
After controlling for other known happiness factors such as income and civil liberties, the respondents who claimed to believe in any sort of a hell (as opposed to only heaven, or neither heaven nor hell) had lower life-satisfaction ratings. Their specific religious affiliations didn’t significantly change this effect.
Next, the researchers gave a writing assignment to 422 Americans from a variety of backgrounds including Catholicism, several different Protestant denominations, Judaism, Hinduism and atheism. A randomly selected third of these subjects were asked to write a short description of their notion of heaven while another third were asked to write about hell. (The final third, the control group, wrote about what they did yesterday, a supposedly neutral topic.) In an affect test immediately afterwards, the people who wrote about heaven generally felt similarly to the controls. However, the subjects who wrote about hell felt sadder and more fearful than the rest — whether they actually believed in it or not. The researchers concluded that while certain religious concepts “may be associated with greater well-being, the belief in hell appears not to be one of them.”
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