Religiosity and subjective well-being

Applied microeconomics seeks, in part, to understand the impact of beliefs, culture and social capital on socioeconomic outcomes. This enables a deeper understanding of the influencers of human behaviour and their welfare implications (Frey and Stutzer, 2002). Religion has undoubtedly played a significant role in shaping societies throughout history and continues to do so in the twenty first century (Idinopolous, 1998; Pokimica et al., 2012). Thus, if we want to deepen our understanding of human behaviour, it becomes imperative that we recognise the multifaceted institution that is religion. This blog is a thought piece around the potential avenues through which religion may affect subjective well-being (SWB).

The economic way of thinking enables an understanding of how religious belief systems and religious institutions legitimatise and coordinate our social interactions with one another to promote either peace and amity or conflict and enmity. Increasingly, economists are looking to understand how policies and institutions impact on the overall welfare (or social well-being) of individuals within society. For more on SWB, see my previous blog on this concept. Subjective assessments of individual well-being can appraise non-quantifiable social aspects of life in a way consistent with economic outcomes (Frey and Stutzer, 2002; Helliwell and Barrington-Leigh, 2010). Given the integral role that religious organisations may have within communities, coupled with the importance that an individual may, or may not place on religious adherence in his or her daily life, it is likely that an individual’s religiosity will affect their subjective evaluations of their well-being (Abdel-Khalek, 2010).

Religion promotes a holistic view of life by deriving meaning from all contexts of existence (Ellison, 1991). The construction and maintenance of a spiritual relationship with a divine entity augmented via religious doctrine allows adherents to interpret and derive greater meaning from any type of event and decipher how best to deal with adversity in life (Krause, 2003; Roemer, 2010; Witter et al., 1985). Relating the challenges one faces to that of a particular figure in religious scriptures can provide one with a mechanism to manage seemingly intolerable situations (Ellison et al., 2001). Drawing on these similarities provides motivation to adherents to overcome adversities or challenges and is a means to achieve personal growth. For adherents, the resulting sense of control is likely to have a positive influence on their subjective assessments of life (Ardelt, 2003; Ellison, 1991, Soydemir et al., 2004).

Aside from modifying how individuals perceive occurrences throughout life, religion directly affects life circumstances by influencing the environment and social sphere one adopts. Religious institutions facilitate the interaction of similarly-minded individuals and enlarge social networks. Social interactions, especially when cultivated in a secular context, foster friendship, community ties and a sense of belonging, thereby promoting life satisfaction (Habib et al., 2009; Roemer, 2010; Witter et al., 1985). Furthermore, the association with religious institutions offers tangible benefits such as support structures extended to members. In times of adversity, members can turn to such institutions for counselling and/or material assistance (Ardelt, 2003; Ellison, 1991; Soydemir et al., 2004). Social support programmes also confer indirect benefits to altruistic members and participation in community drives provides volunteers with pleasure from assisting and uplifting those less fortunate and may further strengthen social ties.

Religion can therefore promote SWB in different ways. These benefits may be intensified or diminished depending on religious norms and/or cultural contexts. Religious doctrine often dictates the manner in which individuals should undertake personal and business dealings, for instance, offers opinion on the promotion of balanced living and may condemn risky behaviours such as the consumption of alcohol, gambling and pre-marital sex (Abdel-Khalek, 2010; Habib et al., 2009; McFarland et al., 2011; Pokimica et al., 2012). These norms create a form of social control which, depending on the individual, could either strengthen or deplete well-being (Ellison, 1991). Members who subscribe to these norms benefit from the structure provided and the endorsement received from their religious community. But those who do not adhere to ‘acceptable behaviours’ generally face pressure to conform and seek forgiveness. If acted upon, well-being may be enhanced due to feelings of acceptance and inner growth, but constant default may lead to condemnation, thereby severely diminishing well-being (Ellison, 1991, Soydemir et al., 2004).

While religion may influence SWB through various avenues, these can be broadly categorised as control mechanisms or social mechanisms. The control mechanisms account for those aspects of religion that create order, stability and purpose in life based on religious doctrine, and are reinforced by religious institutions. When these mechanisms are associated with ‘healthy habits’, they can provide a means through which individuals are able to interpret and effectively deal with life circumstances. The social mechanisms occur through the support offered to adherents by either religious organisations or fellow members. These can serve to promote friendship, trust and develop social capital.

The ideas explored in this article provide an adaptable framework for understanding societies. Societal norms – religious or not – are a lens through which members of a society interpret what is appropriate. For those who value religion, religious beliefs are therefore integral components that shape one’s assessment of life. Considering these, and the institutions that propagate them, is important to grasping SWB at an individual level.

This blog is the second instalment in a series of articles surrounding SWB, religion, and education. The series will conclude by setting out how the attainment of higher levels of education may alter the internal and external religiosity-SWB relationships.




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