How do religious belief and practice affect Europeans' happiness?

Europeans no longer believe in God nor go to church anymore. They don’t even consider themselves to be religious at all. It is clear, therefore, that Europe is a secularized continent. Or is it, really?

The European Values Study 2005-2008 presents a much more nuanced picture. In half of the surveyed countries, the majority of the people, sometimes an overwhelming one, found the statement “There is a personal God.” as that which comes closest to their belief, while in the other half, the statement “There is some God, spirit or life force.” was chosen. The statement “I don’t know if there is a God, spirit or life force.” was second choice for France and the Russian Federation, and the option “There is no God, spirit or life force.” always came in last, even for France where it was chosen by 15 percent of the population, the highest percentage among the different countries. Believers, therefore, still vastly outnumber non-believers, despite the variance in the object of their belief.

As for religious practice, the same study affords us an equally varied panorama. Although in most countries, the majority of the population never attends religious services, in ten, the majority of the population attends religious services once a week. On the aggregate, half of all Europeans pray or meditate at least once a week, and even in a country known for its liberal tradition such as the Netherlands, one-fourth of its inhabitants attends church. So despite the decrease in church attendance and religious practice through the years, a considerable number of Europeans still engage in them, albeit with varying frequency.

Relatively new is the category of Europeans who consider themselves religious, three out of four, although they do not necessarily belong to an institutional church nor attend services. Their position may be described as that of “believing without belonging” (Davie 1994), and in lieu of an organized church, each one follows a fluid, eclectic approach to beliefs and practices. Sociologists call this “cafeteria religion” or “church-free spirituality”. This is a major growing trend throughout the whole continent, not only in the more secular, Northwest but also in the more religious Southeast of the continent.

Religion may be decoupled not only from a church but also from God. For this reason it is worth inquiring separately about the importance of God in one’s life. On a scale from 1 (not at all important) to 10 (very important), we find people from Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Poland and Turkey at the top, saying that God is important, and people from Norway, Sweden Denmark, Estonia and the Czech Republic at the bottom, saying that God is not important. Countries whose people consider God important are also the ones with relatively higher population growth rates. So although no one can guarantee that the next generation will hold the same beliefs as the previous one, chances are that in the future, there will be more people who find God important than those who do not, given the importance of education and upbringing in this matter.

Moreover, the European Values Study understands happiness or well-being as the individual judgement of the overall quality of life, the result of weighing mental and physical health against aspirations and expectations. Certainly, this is a very complex and personal judgement. What makes people happy should vary from time to time and from place to place. Or does it, actually?

Some think of happiness as an innate disposition, almost like a genetic trait. Thus, while Russians inherently gloomy, the Irish are lucky to be born with a sunny and optimistic outlook. Others believe that although the birth lottery may partly account for happiness, what each person does with his life also counts. Besides, there doesn’t seem to be an absolute value or cardinal number for happiness. Rather, it depends on a comparison with other reference groups: a happy woman is she whose husband earns more than her brother-in-law (Clark 1996).

Or it could also be that we judge our present state in comparison to what we remember from the past or to what we imagine the future to be (Gilbert 2007). We should likewise bear in mind the effect of adaptation and adjustment. Consider the experience of people who have become quadriplegic due to some accident and after a certain period recover their basal happiness level (Brickman et al. 1978). Or think of lottery winners whose exhilaration over their good fortune inevitably wears out sooner than later (Brickman et al. 1978). It seems like we always tend to return to the happiness level with which we started.

Be that as it may, the aforementioned study reveals that in the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland, Switzerland, Denmark and Ireland, close to 40 percent of the population are very happy with their life, all things taken together. On the other extreme, we find that only between 0 to 9 percent of the people from Romania, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Bulgaria could say the same thing. On the basis of this observation, it would be easy to dismiss happiness simply as a function of high living standards. But that could not explain why the people from Albania, Europe’s poorest country, regard themselves happier than their neighbors. There has to be something more than economic wealth to explain such huge happiness differentials.

According to the study, country-wide happiness is positively correlated –apart from with material comfort– with factors such as the rule of law, freedom, civil society, cultural diversity and modernity (schooling, technology and urbanization). Another influence in happiness is what psychologists call the “locus of control”. People with an external locus of control believe that their own behavior does not matter much, that rewards in life are beyond them, and their life is guided by fate, luck or other external circumstances. On the other hand, people with an internal locus of control subscribe to the idea that life is what you make it; it is the outcome of one’s own personal decisions and actions. Those with an internal locus of control are happier and more satisfied than those with an external locus of control.

Despite the growing literature on the sociology of religion, on the one hand, and on happiness and economics, on the other, the relations between religion and happiness, at least in Europe as a whole, is still very much an open question. Making use of the 1972-1996 General Social Survey in the US, Ferriss (2002) found happiness to be associated with the frequency of attendance at religious services, denominational preference and doctrinal preference. Brooks (2008) concurs with the finding that in the US, religious participation is positively correlated with high levels of happiness. However, Snoep (2008), comparing data from the 2000 World Values Survey in the US, the Netherlands and Denmark, found that, unlike in the US, there is no significant individual-level correlation between religiosity and happiness for the Netherlands and Denmark. This has led some people to think that religion affects happiness differently, depending on which side of the Atlantic one lives. In European countries, where the welfare state is huge, people do not have as strong a need for the social support that organized churches provide as in the US, where the welfare state is minimal. In some sense, therefore, Europeans seem to view the welfare state as a substitute for church, as a source of security and comfort, if not as an object of faith and belief unto itself. In Hegelian terms, the welfare state is the God that has established his dwelling-place among men.    

Gundlach and Opfinger (2011), in another recent study using international data from World Values Survey for 1982, 1900, 1995 and 2000, also focused on the relationship between personal well-being and religiosity. Their results supported that happiness and religiosity are related in a U-shaped pattern. Both higher religiosity and lower religiosity reported high happiness levels. According to Gundlach and Opfinger (2011) the U-shaped pattern for religion and happiness might be due to network effects: religious people are happier if they live in a religious society and so are atheists, if they live in a society in which religion does not play an important role.

Contrary to commonplace opinions, according to the latest European Values Survey, the vast majority of Europeans consider themselves to be believers, if not in a personal God, at least in God as a spirit or life force. And despite low levels of attendance in institutionalized religious services, half of Europe’s population still prays or practices meditation weekly. Geography matters more than what one would imagine: the Southeastern part of the continent appears to be more religious than the Northwestern part, although the effects of tradition and culture cannot be discounted.

Even when allowing for the possibility that happiness is partly a heritable trait, we cannot rule out the influence of factors that depend on human choices and decisions, such as material wealth and the quality of institutions. Religious belief and practice could be one such factor. And although in one study, unlike in the US, no positive correlation has been found between individual happiness and religiosity in a couple of European countries, this could be due to the high degree of development of the welfare state, rather than an effect of religion itself. Lastly, insofar as religion is not a purely individual, but also a social phenomenon, we should also consider the chance of a self-selection mechanism. Both religious and non-religious people could be equally happy inasmuch as they are able to live among their like.

Alejo José G. Sison and Juncal Cuñado teach at the University of Navarra, in Pamplona, Spain. 

Authors’ note: To respond to this question we used two widely-used data sets, the European Values Study and the European Social Survey. Inasmuch as the methodology and purpose of each one differs, it is not advisable to integrate findings from the two. In the first of this two-part article, we focused on the European Values Study, the objective of which was to discover whether Europeans shared a set of values and whether these were stable or changing with a view to the integration project. In the second part next week we will deal with results from the European Social Survey.


Brickman, P., Coates, D. and Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978): “Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927.

Brooks, A. (2008): Gross National Happiness. New York: Basic Books.

Clark, A. E. (1996): “Job satisfaction and gender: Why are women so happy at work?”, DEELSA, France.

Davie, G. (1994): Religion in Britain since 1945. Believing without Belonging. Oxford, U.K & Cambridge, U.S.A.: Blackwell.

European Values Study (2005): (accessed 20 November 2010).

Ferris, A.L. (2002): “Religion and the quality of life”, Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 199-215.

Gilbert, D. (2007): Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books.

Gundlach, E. and Opfinger, M. (2011), “Religiosity as a determinant of happiness”, GIGA Working Paper, 163.

Snoep, L. (2008): “Religiousness and happiness in three nations: a research note”, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2, 207-211.


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