March 21, 2008

Go and Make Disciples / John Valenti

Are we happy yet?

John ValentiIt’s a part of our American culture to pursue happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of those inalienable rights secured in our Declaration of Independence. But short of being hedonistic, it is interesting to run across some statistics about what exactly makes people happy.

According to a Pew Research Center survey published in 2006, which can be accessed at, just one-third (34 percent) of adults in our country say they are very happy. Another half say they are pretty happy and 15 percent consider themselves not too happy.

In this survey, several statistics stand out. People who attend religious services weekly or more are happier (43 percent are very happy) than those who attend monthly or less (31 percent) or seldom or never (26 percent).

This correlation between happiness and frequency of church attendance has been a consistent finding in the General Social Surveys taken over the years. The same pattern applies within all major religious denominations.

For example, 38 percent of all Catholics who attend church weekly or more report being very happy, while just 28 percent of Catholics who attend church less often say they are very happy.

One reason is that religious people tend to have lots of social support and connection, one of the chief ingredients for happiness. They also live with the sense of purpose and grand design that religious faith provides in daily life. This helps people live meaningfully and make sense of life’s difficulties.

Married people (43 percent are very happy) are a good bit happier than unmarried adults (24 percent), and this too has been a consistent finding over many years and in many surveys. It holds up for men as well as women and also for the old as well as the young.

Interestingly, people who have children are no happier than those who don’t, after accounting for marital status. That is, married people with children are about as happy as married people without children. And unmarried people with children are about as happy as unmarried people without children. Also, retirees are no happier than workers and pet owners are no happier than those without pets.

There is virtually no difference in happiness by gender and only a bit of variance in happiness by age. But the age data runs counter to the prevailing ethos of the popular culture, which is forever extolling the blessings of youth. It turns out that the young are less happy than the middle-aged or old.

There are many things in this world that can bring us temporary happiness—sufficient money, business success, good health, a loving family, loyal friends. But no worldly thing can bring enduring joy and happiness. We might become poor, fail at business or lose our health, even our spouse or our friends. Even if we gain all these things and manage to keep them, sooner or later we must leave them all behind.

God wants us to be happy. The good news is that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, assures us, “In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

(John Valenti is the associate director of Evangelization and Faith Formation for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. E-mail him at†

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