“Accepting Jesus Christ as my savior was the most important moment of my life. Knowing God’s love for me has brought and continues to bring me enormous joy.” Sound familiar? Many of my Christian friends regularly state that their faith has made them much happier and that they take great joy and comfort in knowing and experiencing God’s love. I’m sure that many repeat this sentiment to themselves and to others, perhaps daily. And I am sure they are sincere in this belief, that these sentiments are not simply empty mantras that they repeat as ritual. In short, they believe strongly that their faith has made them happier than they would be without it, and by implication that those persons with faith are happier than those without.
I respectfully disagree.
Recently I had lunch with a couple of friends who had formerly been work colleagues of mine. We were talking (gossiping) about other former colleagues and I mentioned one who I felt was chronically unhappy. (He’s a Christian, by the way, but that wasn’t the point.) My friends agreed that he was an Eeyore by nature and that he consistently found reasons to be unhappy rather than happy. They agreed that some people are simply unhappy by nature, while others are happy.
There has been substantial research in recent years that bears this out. It is a complex issue and it would be unfair to oversimplify. But there is evidence to indicate that, generally speaking, individuals each have a baseline level of happiness and that those baseline levels differ from person to person. We have all met persons who seem always to be viewing the world in a negative way, and we have all known others who seem upbeat even though life may have dealt them a pretty poor hand. In short, some people are simply happier than others.
That’s not to say that happy people never get down, but they seem to have a reserve that brings them back to their normal positive perspective. Similarly, for those that are less happy, regardless of their good (or bad) fortune, over time they return to their normal level of unhappiness. Persons who have had a windfall, such as winning the lottery, are for a time happier but eventually revert to their previous level, whatever that may have been. The same is true for those who have encountered misfortune, such as loss of a job, serious illness, or loss of a loved one. In time they also revert to the general level of happiness that they enjoyed before their misfortune.
On numerous occasions I have used this fact personally to accelerate my own psychological recovery when I am down. (Yes, even I occasionally get down, despite my secular perspective.) My technique is to recall that there had been times in the past when I had been unhappy because of some misfortune or disappointment. I then remind myself that in each previous instance I had regained my happiness. That is, I had been happy, then unhappy, then happy once more. I then reassure myself that, just like in the past, I will soon be happy once more. It actually works. That’s a tactic that I use, but I believe we all have techniques for regaining our emotional equilibrium.
So what does this have to do with whether Christians are happier by reason of their faith? Here’s what I think. I would grant that a commitment to a faith can be a joyful event and that the new (or “reborn”) Christian can experience an enhanced state of happiness . . . for a time. After all, our level of happiness is simply a mental state, a measure of our overall perspective on our lives at any point in time. But then, just like with any other event that may bring enhanced happiness on a temporary basis, the Christian experience, if you will, is lost in the noise of the ups and downs of daily living. Essentially, everyone reverts to their own natural level of happiness, regardless of their attitude toward religion.
OK, I can hear my Christian friends saying that they continue to find joy in their commitment and recommitment to their faith. Moreover, they will argue, their faith sustains them through life’s disappointments. And I don’t necessarily disagree. However, the question is not whether their faith is helpful to them in maintaining a level of happiness, but whether their level of happiness is any higher than it would be if they did not have a faith. As I said, we all have techniques for bringing us back to our normal happiness baseline, regardless of our attitude toward religion, and I mentioned earlier one tactic that I have employed. Christians simply use their faith in an unseen God as a tactic. In sum, I do not believe there is any correlation between religious faith and level of happiness.
Speaking as a nonbeliever, I can assure those of faith that many of the factors that in my experience sustain my and other atheists’ happiness are the same factors that sustain theirs--the love of family and friends; the joy to be found in music, art, scientific discovery; simply the experience of life. But in addition, we nonbelievers find joy in knowing that we have the opportunity to gain a better understanding of our world through rational thought and exploration based on scientific principles. And I am continually thankful--and happy for the fact--that my quest for an understanding of the world is not hampered by a belief system that is based on allegiance to authority rather than on critical thinking. I continue to find real joy in that.
So here’s my main point: Christians should carefully reassess their belief that their faith is necessary to sustaining their happiness. It’s not. They should not worry that they would become less happy were they to relinquish that faith. They wouldn’t. As a former Christian speaking from personal experience, I can honestly say, “Come on in. The secular waters are fine.”
© 2014 John M. Phillips
[Program note: In my next essay I plan to expand on the flipside to this point--why relinquishing faith in God can be a source of continuing happiness not a reason for despair.]