Does Religion Make You Happy?

So, I finally discovered podcasts–and by that, I mean I finally took the time to go through and curate a manageable list of my favorite podcasts that I can actually keep up with:  no small task, I tell you!  Anyway, one of the podcasts on my list is “Freakonomics”–find it here:  Freakonomics Postcast

Anyway, one of the recent episodes was titled, “Does Religion Make You Happy?”, and it begins by talking about tithing in particular:  so, specifically, does religious giving make you happy?  [The second half of the podcast talks more generally about the question of whether or not religious people are happier–so the whole podcast is interesting.]  Regarding this question of tithing, though, on the one hand, they note that there are lots of positive associations between happiness and giving, particularly as it relates to religious affiliation and participation:  however, at the same time, there are lots of caveats with the data, so one can’t simply say, “Yes, giving to your church [or temple, mosque, etc.] makes you happier.”

Speaking from my own experience, as a Christian, here’s what I think can be said–at least about Christianity.  There are two really important Christian teachings that are interconnected, and relate directly to this issue of wealth & giving.  The first is that all we have comes from God–we don’t technically “own” anything:  what we have comes into our hands only temporarily, and after we die, it passes out of them–“you can’t take it with you,” as the proverbial saying goes.  The second is that all we have is to be used for the sake of the neighbor and to glorify God:  having received from God in joy and thankfulness, we give back to the neighbor in joy and thankfulness–we have a mandate to care for our neighbor with the gifts we have given.  These are, of course, very counter-cultural ideas, as they grate against the notion that we have a right to all we have earned [I worked hard for it & it is mine], and that the neighbor has no claim on me or my resources.  These are sinful, self-centered commitments, but boy, are they hard to dislodge, especially because our capitalist society works so hard to convince us that money is the most important measure of personal value, success, accomplishment, and, yes, happiness.  However, the fact is that this is patently untrue–and there are plenty of studies that demonstrate the  opposite:  once you have achieved a level of wealth that enables you to be comfortable [safe housing, enough food, etc., etc.], people making $500,000 aren’t happier than those making $50,000.

So, again, speaking personally, I have found lots of joy and freedom in the practice of holding one’s possessions loosely:  enjoying them while you have them, but being willing to let them go when needed.  It does feel good to be a generous person, and to actively practice the spiritual disciplines of generosity and simplicity:  not being shackled to money–being bound to it both physically and spiritually.   Of course, let me be clear:  I’m just as sinful as the next person, and there are lots of ways I could live more simply [wardrobe, shoes–enough said]–I don’t practice this nearly as well as I could.  However, I am grateful at least for the fact that I have been formed by a tradition that emphasizes that giving is important, and that has inculcated a sense of joy and peace when I do it.  My faith nurtures me in these disciplines.  I think my active participation in the Christian church has made me more sensitive and aware of the needs of my neighbor–both locally and globally–and has given me a stronger impetus and desire to actively engage those needs with my time, talents and money.  And, that makes me happy–it really does.  

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