Truth or Happiness: Must We Choose?

I recently heard a talk by Gary Brill , who teaches psychology at Rutgers, discussing studies showing religious believers are happier than nonbelievers.

 Defining happiness can be elusive – a feeling that one is happy? Perhaps a more useful concept is well-being, or flourishing, which describes an entire life rather than just one emotion.

Anyhow, Brill did discuss data showing religious believers report greater happiness, suffer fewer psychological disorders (unless you count religious belief itself), recover better from setbacks, cope better with stress, and even have better health and longevity. Religion often does entail rules against harmful behaviors; and imparts a sense of meaning and purpose to life. All this contributes to a positive mental outlook which might affect our immune systems (thus further explaining the health effects). Brill noted that while fervent religious believers get these benefits, weak or conflicted believers are worse off than nonbelievers.

Morality (and feeling moral) is also important to us, and we’re constantly told that religion gives us morality. However, studies have shown that the actual moral behavior of religious believers is no better than for nonbelievers. Furthermore, there is no sign of moral breakdown in those European countries, particularly Scandinavian, where religion has almost vanished from people’s lives. To the contrary, these are among the world’s most orderly societies, with lower social pathologies like crime, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, etc., than in Godly America. (This shows, yet again, that basic morality is built into us by evolution, part of our adaptation of living in groups where social cohesion was vital for survival. We don’t get morality from religion; religion gets it from our human nature.)

Another factor in positive psychology is one’s relationship with truth and reality. We want to feel we are effective agents in negotiating our way through life’s reality. Brill invoked a thought experiment by philosopher Robert Nozick: Imagine a machine that simulates pleasurable experiences, producing sensations and emotive feelings identical to the real thing, or even better. Would you spend your life in the machine? Most people say no. They value truth and reality. This too comes from our evolutionary heritage: for our ancestors, distinguishing reality from illusion could well be a life-or-death matter.

 And of course there is obvious dissonance between this truth tropism and religion. Some of us reject the Nozick machine of religious faith, and prefer living in the real world. Must this mean sacrificing the well-being that religion confers, as described above?

Certainly not.

For all those mentioned studies, you have to be careful what effects are really being measured. As Brill elucidated, a key problem is that these tend largely to be studies of Americans. And when it comes to matters religious, American exceptionalism is very real. Brill showed stunning results from a survey asking, “Are you sure God exists?” About 60% of Americans said yes. But in other advanced countries, the yes percentages were so tiny that that belief could be considered eccentric.

 (An aside: Why America is so religious is much debated. One thesis (beloved of the Left; click here) is that European social welfare systems are so protective that people feel no more need for divine help, in contrast to “harsh” America. I think that’s nonsense. While religion does thrive in poor benighted environments, Americans don’t have materially harsher existences than cosseted Europeans. The real difference is the First Amendment which, unlike in Europe, keeps government’s stultifying hands off religion, and forces churches to compete with one another. That free market in religion has (as free markets are wont to do) made a far more vibrant, dynamic, and user-friendly religious scene in the U.S.)

Anyhow, America’s unique religiosity has a big effect on the happiness studies. People want to fit in; to belong; to meet societal expectations. In America, that means religion. A key element of well-being is social connectedness; we are deeply social animals (again the evolutionary result of living in groups that had to hang together). What the studies really show is that it’s the social and fellowship aspects of religious participation that confer the benefits – not so much the private, inner belief. Socially isolated believers don’t get those benefits.

So, in America, it’s hardly surprising that the religious believer far more easily taps into all the well-being benefits of fitting in with other like-minded people, than does the nonbeliever, who more often feels like a pariah. No wonder religious folks tend to be happier; but, again, it’s not religious belief per se that causes this, it’s the social penumbra of religious participation.

That’s harder for nonbelievers to replicate, but by no means impossible. You just have to work a little more at it. Humanist groups are scarcer than churches, but they exist. And understanding that our life on Earth is the only one we get makes improving that life, both for oneself and others, the central humanist value. That is all the purpose and meaning anyone needs.

 And the rewards of the humanist path are actually greater. One can thereby live authentically, without that annoying tension between belief and reality. For human beings, bio-engineered to care about truth, living in the real world is better than religion’s fantasyland.

Advertisements

Tags: , , ,

7 Responses to “Truth or Happiness: Must We Choose?”

  1. Lee Says:

    I get much pleasure from learning, by which I mean learning truths. Here’s to getting high on life!

  2. Shouldland Says:

    Great post! Give me truth over a life of comfortable numbness everytime.

  3. Gregg Millett Says:

    Nicely written, as always. If truth seeking makes one sad, relative to some situation, then let there be truth, especially if it spurs one to taking some action.

  4. CharmingN Says:

    I’m the marketing assistant for Robert Scheinfeld, a NY Times bestselling author who just wrote a new book on how to be happy. It’s called “The Ultimate Key To Happiness.” It offers a v-e-r-y different approach to defining what happiness really is, and a very different step-by-step path to experience it all the time, no matter what’s going on around you. The Internet has gotten so complex. So many options. Can anyone here share ideas for how to get the word out there about this important new book? I’d love to hear your ideas. I’m sure there are tons of ideas I’ve never thought of before.

  5. Mr. Kurz Says:

    Nietzsche wrote in his book Beyond Good & Evil

    “Indeed we came to a long halt at the question about the cause of this will – until we finally came to a complete stop before a still more basic question. We asked about the value of this will. Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?”

    He questions the value of absolute truth. As you said, it is wired in man, just like religion is. Is Truth nothing but a new God in a sense? Truth is revered religiously and seen as a blind ideal. In the same sense us Westerners regard egalitarianism, freedom of speech as ‘universal rights’ and the highest good, but aren’t they mere Western dogma’s in a way?

    [FSR reply: No. But if you actually prefer untruth, uncertainty, even ignorance, go for it.]

  6. accutane Says:

    Hello there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my
    zynga group? There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    By all means, please feel free to share.
    Best regards
    Frank

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s