Does Religion Make You Happy? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: www.CGPGrey.com)

(Photo: www.CGPGrey.com)

This week’s episode is called “Does Religion Make You Happy?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

We undertook this episode in response to a listener question from Joel Rogers, a tax accountant in Birmingham, Ala. Here’s what he wrote:

Being devout Southern Baptists my parents have steadfastly been giving 10% of their income to the church their whole lives. I recently voiced my opinion that I thought that was too [much to] give, and my parents and I got into an argument.

After a little back-and-forth, my parents conceded tithing at 10% may not be the exact amount ‘God’ expects, but my mother said something that stuck with me. She said the 10% they give to the church makes them happier than anything else they spend money on.

I’ve read that people who go to religious institutions consistently are happier than their counterparts. The economist inside me says that money (not given to the church) would make a non-tither happier, all things equal. So, will exchanging 10% of your income for the right to participate in a religious congregation statistically increase or decrease your happiness?

Joel is in effect asking two questions, related but separate. One is whether giving away money – in this case, to a religious institution – makes you happier. The other is whether religion itself makes you happier. Neither question is easy to answer, but we’ll do our best.

In the episode you’ll hear from Laurence Iannaccone, an economist at Chapman University who specializes in the economics of religion. Iannaccone says there is a strong correlation between religious giving and happiness but, as you’ll find out, just because giving and happiness seem to go hand in hand doesn’t mean the giving causes the happiness.

You’ll also hear from MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who has done quite a bit of research on these topics. In “Pay or Pray? The Impact of Charitable Subsidies on Religious Attendance” (abstract; PDF), Gruber tried to determine whether giving money to church is a complement to religious attendance or a substitute — and, whether it’s the giving or the going that actually makes people better off. Here’s his suggestion for the Rogers Family:

GRUBER: I would say if it’s really going … to church that matters for them, for their happiness and well-being, then they should maybe even give less and just go more.

And here’s what Gruber found in his paper “Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation, and Outcomes: Is Religion Good for You?” (abstract; PDF):

GRUBER: [The religious are] more likely to have higher incomes, higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any economic measure you want to use.

In the podcast, Stephen Dubner also wonders: what if you’ve been giving to your church but find you’re no better off in the long run? As it turns out, some churches, like NewSpring in South Carolina, offer a money-back guarantee.

Finally: a big thanks to the Rogers Family (as well as to WBHM producer Andrew Yeager), who let us go to church with them at Grace Life Baptist Church in McCalla, Alabama.

Rogers Family

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  1. Matt says:

    I have a question with regards to the religiosity experiment on polish catholics in Boston versus Minneapolis.

    Did he (John?) do a negative control in which he tested the happiness levels in two different population densities of atheists? Seems like this would allow them to establish whether a like-minded group (similar to the ethnic similarities of say Polish) is alone associated with happiness in the absence of religion. If there is a difference it might be interesting to see how much of the effect is due to religion and how much due to the social advantages of like-mindedness.

    Also I imagine that this is not a linear relationship in that there might be exponential gains (or diminishing returns, I have no idea) in happiness with increasing atheism/religion in a given population. Any evidence for this?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 1
    • James says:

      I also wonder about the reasons for happiness. It would be interesting (not to say provocative) to do comparative studies of the happiness of say people engaged in multi-level marketing schemes, or victims of Ponzi schemes before the scheme is exposed.

      After all, why shouldn’t the religious be happier? Not only do they get to hang out with a bunch of like-minded people, they get to believe that they’ll eventually get something of great value, and in the meanwhile enjoy the gratification of being able to feel superior to everyone who refuses to join.

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      • Sam says:

        I’m surprised that you aren’t seeing the irony in the bit about religious people feeling superior.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Mike says:

      To be fair, the study didn’t say the religious were happier, it said they were measurably better off on a number of metrics.

      It would be interesting to do the control against atheists, but I think it would also be interesting to do a control against another “us-vs-them” community. In my experience as an atheist, we don’t have much of a community – we don’t gather every week for example, or wear identifying clothing or jewelry.

      And I find it suspicious that “religious density” was chosen as the “measurable” stand in for “religiousness” If we are investigating whether being religious conveys any particular benefit, why is the size of the congregation more important than the intensity of belief, or some tangible measure of commitment? This doesn’t seem to be testing whether being religious is a benefit, as much as it tests whether being a member of a large culturally homogenous group is a benefit. Are people who tithe to their church, better off than people who regularly donate to their political party, or volunteer at least 4 hours a week at animal shelters?

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      • Chris says:

        To be fair… They didn’t say that religious density was a stand in for participation. What they said is that many studies have determines that religious participation rates correlate strongly with religious density. As such, they can do statistical studies that use this correlation as a proxy.

        Sound reasonable to me, although it could introduce some error.

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      • James says:

        The religious density/participation raises an interesting question. In areas of high density, you would likely find a good many people who participate in the religion not because they actually believe in it, but because it’s what people do. So if you could find a way to differentiate believers from crowd followers, then it would be possible to determine whether the benefits come from belief, or from group participation.

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      • Katamari says:

        James – They have found a way to differentiate true believers from crowd-followers. It’s a concept called extrinsic vs intrinsic religiosity. I highly recommend looking at that research because it’s fascinating. In short: when you separate them out, extrinsic religiosity (i.e. attending church but not being a big believer) is correlated with happiness, whereas intrinsic religiosity (having strong faith but not attending religious services) has either a small or zero correlation. The findings seem to suggest that it’s the social support that comes from being part of a community of like-minded people that boosts your happiness, not religion or faith in itself.

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  2. Nate says:

    A true test of whether tithing is what makes people happy as opposed to simply going to church can be extrapolated with a simple thought experiment. Survey current happiness levels of a congregation, and then have all the churches expenses covered for the period of one year/month/quarter, requiring no offerings to be collected. Then gauge the happiness levels at the end of that period.

    Would having more money in their pockets while still enjoying the same fellowship and worship levels of church have a negative effect on overall happiness levels? Is tithing simply part of the process of ‘suffering’ as [insert deity] did?

    I would venture to guess that tithing is simply a monetary representation of the value that church gives a person. Some people pay the ‘fare’ in devotion(e.g. attendence) others choose to pay with money.

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    • J1 says:

      I doubt you’d find any effect on happiness if you suspended offerings, as people donating a significant amount to their church consider doing so to be sacrifice, not suffering (they aren’t the same thing). If their church stopped collections for a year, they’d donate that money elsewhere. With respect to your third paragraph, there’s an extremely strong correlation between attendance and financial support.

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      • Random Jokester says:

        Nate, there are Christian churches (and possibly churches of other beliefs) that do not _require_ tithing. The Calvary Chapel movement is one. It’s not a perfect church movement as there is no such thing, but you could certainly run real experiments there.

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  3. Jeff says:

    Just a quick preemptive post. Can we keep the typical internet hate speech and disrespect for people with different opinions at zero?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 2
  4. Steve MoneyPlanSOS Stewart says:

    In completely biased about this subject, so let me gently approach the topic by saying the original question is flawed (the question he asks in the podcast, not the one in the copy of his letter above). Joel’s question in the podcast was “Will FORFEITING 10% of your income for THE RIGHT to go to a church make you happier?”

    FORFEITING: God asks us to GIVE 10% to the church. It’s not a demand and tithing is not one of the 10 Commandments. There is no “forfeiting” when someone gives (although I will concede there is the opportunity cost displacement). The closest thing to a demand in the Bible is Malachi 3:10 where God says to test him: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”

    THE RIGHT: I don’t know of any church in the States that makes you give money in order to allow you to go to church (“the RIGHT to go to a church”). If that were true then they would be charging for tickets or asking for donations at the door.

    Note: I didn’t give any money to my church for most of my early adult years and I was never fined, kicked out, or flogged because of it.

    Personally, we give a 10% tithe because He asks us to. We give more because it makes us feel great. We know what most of our monetary gifts are used for (building projects, missions, Humane Society, etc…) and there is no question that we feel as if we are part of a greater good.

    I pray others will challenge their perceptions of giving money and look at the motives behind it. If they can’t come to a conclusion then I would ask that they give it a try: Go to church, give 10% for 90 days, and see if they don’t see/feel/experience a change.

    What have they got to lose? 10%?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 29 Thumb down 9
    • Enter your name... says:

      “The right” might be accurate, depending on your religion. According to one of my American Jewish friends, only paid-up members (I’m not sure that is the right word) of synagogues can get admission to some of the services for the high holy days.

      Jewish synagogues, at least in her area, seem to run on a subscription model rather than the Christian give-whatever donation model: Members get an annual bill, usually based on family size or on a sliding scale. There are some fundraisers and additional donations are encouraged, but most of the basic operating costs are covered by the membership bill. It’s overall fairer in some ways, and might reduce the feeling that some people aren’t paying their “fair share”.

      Restricting some services to members only sounded like it was motivated mostly by practical concerns: they’re basically “selling” something (like admission to Passover dinner), and there literally isn’t enough room to admit anyone who just feels like showing up. Also, she said that if you could attend these special events for free, then she thought that far fewer people would be willing to pay anything at all.

      My friend couldn’t afford it for several years, so she didn’t join, and since she couldn’t join in the “members-only” events, then she felt left out and didn’t participate in the normal ones (which are free and open to the public) either. I don’t think that any of this—being poor, underemployed, and socially disconnected from her co-religionists—made her feel happy.

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    • Hunter says:

      I thought the exact same thing when I heard ‘Forfeiting’ and the ‘Right’ to go to church. He had it all wrong from the get-go (especially for southern churches) and someone not familiar with how a church and giving actually works would see tithe as some tax taken from you and a church as some club you must pay to enter in to.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Gary says:

      Examination of the New Testament reveals that there is no requirement for Christians to give ten percent of their income. Paul, the chief apostle, said to be a cheerful and generous giver and commends those congregations that helped others. Jesus actually demanded 100% commitment by his followers, not a piddling tenth. The only difficulty for Christians should be not falling prey to those who just are after their money. Happy giving comes with sincerity and without ulterior motive.

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      • Jason says:

        You’re not reading carefully. Acts. 4: 32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

        Chapter 5 goes on to describe the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, who failed to give ALL of their money.

        Seems at the time tithing was not only mandatory, but 100% of your income…

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      • Random Jokester says:

        Actually it is Jason that is not reading carefully. Acts 4 does not describe a _requirement_ to tithe 100% to God, but a shared communal commitment to share resources and possessions with each other (“God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all..,.”) Ananias and Sapphira did not die because they did not give all of their money, but because they “lied [not] just to human beings but to God.” Acts 5:4 [NIV].

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  5. Zach says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 19
    • Rachel says:

      Saying that religion makes people happy is in no way implying that Atheists are unhappy.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 3
    • Stefan says:

      Unhappy atheists? Look at the quality of life and happiness in the LEAST religious countries (like those in Scandinavia, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, England etc.) compared to the most religious countries.

      Looks like atheists populate the best nations on the planet.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 12
      • Enter your name... says:

        Don’t forget China, the Czech Republic, and both North and South Koreas, all of which have more committed atheists than anything on your list. They also tend to disprove your point.

        Most of the countries you list have only about 10–15% atheists, and some of them (like Germany) are majority religious.

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      • HX87 says:

        I’m not sure how Czech Republic and South Korea disprove Stefan’s point. They’re pretty happy, and the unhappiness their people feel is due to non-religious factors. Scandinavia is institutionally Christian (due to an established state Church) but functionally atheist. Even China isn’t that unhappy these days, and the Chinese nonexclusive concept of religion makes it possible to not believe in any gods, believe in superstitions, and attend religious services at the same time.

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      • Chris says:

        There is a big difference in a population that has been exposed to religion and has decided it made no sense to them and a population that has been told from birth that that religion is poison or not even told that it exists.

        As an atheist I want my kids to read about religions and I tell them that they will have to make a choice about what to believe. Whatever comes out of that is bound to bring happiness, right?

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      • James says:

        It would be useful here to distinguish between atheism – the belief that there is no god (or gods) – and agnosticism, which is an admission of not knowing whether there are or not. I claim that atheism is just as much a religion as any other, since it invokes belief.

        And in turn, that makes most of the listed countries, and most non-religious individuals, not atheistic, but agnostic, as most of them just seem to think that religion is irrelevant to their lives.

        And of course North Korea is officially a very religious state, worshipping the Kims.

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      • Stefan says:

        ‘Enter your name…’

        That’s a truly foolish post. The nation’s I listed have made the conscious decision to leave religion whilst those communist nations you mentioned have had it ‘cleansed’ from their society due to governmental force. They aren’t the same at all and i’m over that tired response.

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      • NZ says:

        @Stefan:

        If the point is that atheism makes you happier, then why should it matter whether you’re an atheist because you chose to be one or because you were indoctrinated as one by your government?

        You can’t just ignore this question or call it foolish because you’ve heard it a lot. If the question is “tired” then there should be an equally “tired” answer that is based on some quality that is exclusive to atheism, regardless of how that atheism is arrived at. You haven’t provided one, and I suspect it is because you can’t.

        What seems more realistic to me is that happiness on a national level cannot be predicted by any one measure. Rather, it is determined by a complicated mixture of genetics, societal homogeneity, standard of living (especially with regards to diet and sanitation), family-centeredness, loveliness of physical environment, perceived improvement in quality of life over time, how much the culture values happiness, and a bunch of other things we’re (or at least I’m) not sure of.

        But this is a sophisticated idea that can’t be slapped on a bumper sticker, and so it’s likely to be rejected–especially by smug atheists.

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      • James says:

        Though in point of fact, around here – which is far from the ‘Bible Belt’ – smug religious bumper stickers seem to outnumber smug atheist/agnostic ones by at least 10:1. And that’s not even counting Flying Spagetti Monster ones as religious :-)

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      • NZ says:

        I view smug religious bumper stickers as a defense mechanism. Religious people feel the urge to slap these things on their cars as a way to stand up against what they perceive as a hostile cultural takeover, in this case by smug atheists and their secularist demands.

        My guess is that religious bumper stickers can be seen everywhere, but they get more smug FARTHER from the bible belt, not closer to it.

        What’s interesting is that no complementary pattern exists for smug atheist bumper stickers, which remain smug even in very secular areas. Why do atheists come off as smug so much more widely?

        When religious people are “preaching to the choir”, so to speak, they get more solemn. Obvious, “low-hanging fruit” type messages can be flushed out quickly because religion provides an established hierarchy for the dissemination of messages. What’s left are the deeper, non-bumper-sticker-friendly insights, and you need to already be past the “What part of ‘Thou Shalt Not’ don’t you understand?” phase to be receptive to them.

        Atheism, meanwhile, is unordered. You don’t know if the atheist in the car next to you is still on the fence and might go back to church next week, or if he’s an anti-religion guru who makes Richard Dawkins look like Pat Robertson. Therefore it’s safer to display an entry level atheist message like the “Evolution” fish on your car, even if you live in Boulder, CO (2nd most atheistic city in the US according to Gallup).

        That, and atheism self-selects to some degree for people who are both opinionated and sure of themselves.

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      • James says:

        But that perception of “hostile cultural takeover” works both ways. Indeed, if we look at history & culture, the actual hostile takeover is coming from the other direction. Nor it it just the “smug atheists” who’re affected, but the whole spectrum of agnostics and followers of non-conservative Christian beliefs.

        Though I must say, and maybe it’s just a matter of perception, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an atheist, agnostic, or anti-religious-right bumper sticker that could be described as “smug”, unless you consider something – like the Darwin fish with legs – that points out just how wrong some of that other religion’s doctrines are to be smug. More often, they’re along the lines of “Keep YOUR religion off MY body”.

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      • Paul says:

        NZ

        Notwithstanding the arbitrary nature of what may constitute as “smug,” let me remind you that 95% of the american population, according to the census, believes in some sort of higher being or universal spirit. While cities like Boulder and other culturally and economically vibrant cities with relatively more advanced educational backgrounds tend to be less religious, it is by no means the rule as you seem to suggest. The notion of some sort of a “hostile secular takeover” seems to be only a product of manufactured fear and paranoia drummed up by the religious right than a reality, especially considering the rise in church and religious affiliation and the behavior of many state and federal legislators concerning social matters, particularly in “red” districts and states, to name a few. As cynical as it may be, these conspiratorial fantasies and intensifying suspiciousness do serve a purpose – both socially and politically – for these institutions. With that said, I believe you’re spot on when it comes to measuring overall happiness. As an atheist, well said.

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      • NZ says:

        @James:

        The religions that have done the most taking over have tended not to do it by adapting to the preexisting culture. Where religion has succeeded in cultural takeover, it has mostly come from the non-conservative religious, who are more willing to bend their beliefs to meet new converts halfway. (Compare Catholicism in Rome to Catholicism in rural Peru, for example.)

        The first Google image search result for “atheist bumper stickers” returns a mosaic of 22 stickers, 15 of which could be considered smug (see my definition below), and another 2 of which are just plain aggressive.

        Speaking of “secular cultural takeover” (see below), a Google image search for “religious bumper stickers” returns mostly anti-religious ones. You have to enter “[adjective specifying a religion] bumper stickers” to get examples that are actually pro-religion.

        Once you enter “Christian bumper stickers”, of the first 22 stand-alone stickers specifically relevant to Christianity you get 4 that are smug (but really they’re more like angry, warning atheists of damnation and so on), 4 that are meant as stern warnings to other Christians, and the other 18 are just earnest statements of support for Christian faith.

        By the way, is there an atheist equivalent for the self-deprecating humor of the “Don’t let the car fool you, my treasure’s in heaven” bumper sticker? I haven’t seen one.

        @Paul:

        Most people agree on some version of the following definition of “smug”: A smug person doesn’t just think he’s right, he revels in the notion that others are wrong.

        There is a hostile secular takeover–it’s plainly evident–but I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. Indeed, there’s nobody to organize such a thing!

        Rather, it’s a decentralized movement driven by:

        • well-intentioned (but results-blind) egalitarianism
        • individualism (humility is the opposite of “self-actualization” as it’s typically promoted)
        • the youth-centeredness of our culture (following traditions is the opposite of cool)
        • anti-authoritarianism more generally (following rules handed down by authority figures is even less cool than following traditions).

        There’s plenty of spite in all this, but its unsheathed expression is mostly limited to bumper stickers and stand-up comedy bits.

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      • NZ says:

        @James:

        Oops, that first sentence, above, contained a typo. I meant to write “The religions that have done the most taking over have tended to do it by adapting to the preexisting culture. ” The word “not” from the phrase “have tended NOT to do it” should have been be omitted.

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      • James says:

        “By the way, is there an atheist equivalent for the self-deprecating humor of the “Don’t let the car fool you, my treasure’s in heaven” bumper sticker?”

        You wouldn’t call that just a little bit smug? We must be using different definitions of the word. Same applies to Google searches. Now of course, Google being what it is, we may not be picking up the same set of images, but in the first screen or two of “atheist” ones, I see only one or two that could remotely be considered smug: “I’ve got nothing against God, it’s His fan club I can’t stand” and “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” But almost all of the Christian ones seem smug to me. Again, maybe that’s just my viewpoint speaking.

        *And there’s another problem. Seems like some people are trying to reduce this to a binary “either you’re a fundamentalist Christian, or you’re an atheist” problem, when there’s really a whole range, and a multitude of different religions. For instance, my favorite among the “atheist” one is “Jesus promised to get rid of all the evil people, Odin promised to get rid of all the Ice Giants: I don’t see any Ice Giants, do you?” Which certainly seems pro-Norse religion to me :-)

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      • Stefan says:

        @ Enter your name

        South Korea is notoriously Christian, there is absolutely no way in the world that those nations I mentioned are MORE religious than South Korea.

        Australia, whose last census had ‘no religion’ at the very bottom of the list saw it ticked by 22% of the population (a low-estimate due to people like my family ticking the box due to cultural reasons despite being non-believers, something confirmed by countless others on Reddit threads after the census results were released) whereas New Zealand, who has it at the top of their list saw it marked off by a massive 40% of its people.

        According to Wikipedia, 51.3% of Netherlands is irreligious, and 25% of English people are atheist, with a further ~10% being unaffiliated.

        All in all, a bit higher than that 10-15% you said above.

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    • Stefan says:

      @NZ

      You misunderstood the intentions of my post. I was not randomly stating that atheism is the qualifier or pre-requisite for happiness. I was **responding** to someone making an ignorant blanket-statement about atheists being disgruntled, sad people (the annoying stereotype so often perpetuated).

      My comment was merely saying that it sure is coincidental that all these irreligious nations seem to have such a high quality of life. It was a tongue-in-cheek response.

      “If the point is that atheism makes you happier, then why should it matter whether you’re an atheist because you chose to be one or because you were indoctrinated as one by your government?”

      I cannot honestly fathom how you can’t recognise a difference, you’re surely being disingenuous. Think of the type of society that would be created by a government that actively purges religion from its people. What kind of evil, dictatorial regime would that be? Such actions surely don’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from other oppressive measures. How can you expect such ‘atheists’ (who aren’t really aren’t atheists since you can’t fake belief – If I believe in God, the government outlawing it doesn’t magically make me lose that belief) to be happy in the same manner as those in the UK or Germany?

      “What seems more realistic to me is that happiness on a national level cannot be predicted by any one measure.”

      I TOTALLY agree with this. I would never argue otherwise. Tell that to the person who made the original comment in this thread.

      “But this is a sophisticated idea that can’t be slapped on a bumper sticker, and so it’s likely to be rejected–especially by smug atheists.”

      Way to lower yourself to the level of the OP. Really, great job there. Way to take make an otherwise considered comment douchey.

      Your entire argument rests on the assumption that I’m saying atheism is the ONLY factor in one’s happiness, something I never said. So you’ve both strawmanned and acted like an ass.

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  6. Brendan says:

    I wonder if there was any consideration given to the negative utility of spending a significant amount of your life believing in something that is not true. Delusional people can be happier than rational people. I don’t think that makes it a desirable way to spend ones time.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 23 Thumb down 25
    • Enter your name... says:

      I doubt that there is any true negative utility.

      Would you really be better off knowing exactly how little your neighbors care about you? How readily most of your friends would drop you if you encountered embarrassing problems? How rarely your family members actually think about you? How little of her actual attention that waitress is really giving you?

      Or are you better off thinking, however wrongly it may turn out to be, that your neighbors and friends like you a lot, your family members think of you very frequently, and that the attentive-seeming waitress really is paying attention instead of just faking it?

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  7. Mike says:

    I also have a question about the Boston/Minneapolis study. What would happen if they looked outside the USA? Religion, prosperity and happiness differ around the world.

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  8. M.E. O'Brien says:

    Financial contributions are just one way to support your faith…. Reading and adhering to revealed principles and living your faith are also important along with bringing its light to others who actively seek to find it

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