The incisive social critic H.L. Menken famously described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In the eyes of a not insubstantial portion of the population, this sentiment has been mass-produced and broadbrushed across the entire landscape of religion. Surely it is by now axiomatic that religious people are little more than repressed, uptight, morose discontents with personal vendettas to search out and destroy any wayward vestiges of amusement that might be illicitly had.
But, as is often the case, a large body of research suggests otherwise. A February 16, 2012, headline by the Gallup organization declares “Religious Americans Enjoy Higher Wellbeing.” Gallup drew upon a massive sample of 676,000 interviews conducted over the course of two years to declare decisively that “the statistically significant relationship between religiousness and wellbeing holds up after controlling for numerous demographic variables.” In six out of seven categories, including Life Evaluation Index, Emotional Health Index, Healthy Behaviors Index, Work Environment Index, and the Basic Access Index, very religious Americans score higher than nonreligious or moderately religious Americans (the exceptional category is the Physical Health Index).
This research confirms earlier research conducted by MARRI, including studies detailing the Benefits of Religious Attendance and Religious Practice and Educational Attainment. These and other studies demonstrate that the side effects of religious practice are unequivocally desirable and beneficial both to the wellbeing of the individual and the strength of the society. Given this social science data, it would seem that the wit of Menken and the general suspicion against religion that his comments represent might be in need of revisitation and revision. Despite these popular misconceptions, the data demonstrate that religious people are undeniably, but perhaps not inexplicably, happy.