Economists have found that there is a strong association between measures of subjective well-being (SWB) and the business cycle: when the economy is doing well, people feel good. For example, Gallup found that only 7 percent of Americans felt satisfied at the height of the 2008 Great Recession, whereas U.S. respondents reported new heights of satisfaction in 2018 at 38 percent. (That might still seem low, but that’s a separate story!)
Does religious affiliation affect how this relationship holds? According to our recent study, the answer is yes.
Sociologists, psychologists, and public health scholars have previously studied the effects of religious affiliation on well-being, but these studies have been plagued by at least one of two challenges. First, samples in most studies are quite small, largely because running experiments is time-consuming and expensive. Second, the evidence is purely correlational—not causal. So, we tried something different.
Using nearly a decade of data, comprising millions of respondents from Gallup’s U.S. Daily Poll between 2008 and 2017, we explore the potential moderating effect of religion in our recent study, “Does Religious Affiliation Protect People’s Well-Being? Evidence from the Great Recession after Correcting for Selection Effects.”
The beauty of our data-driven approach is that we can compare individuals in a county at one point in time with observationally equivalent individuals in the same county at another point in time. We can then quantify how their reported SWB varies in response to different local economic conditions, which we measure using year-to-year county employment growth over every quarter. Because we can track respondents in the same county over time, our statistical model controls for differences across space—that is, the fact that a person in San Francisco is different in many ways from a person in Dallas.
Moreover, to investigate the role of religious affiliation, we focused on three groups of people: theists with a belief in a higher power, Christians, and active Christians. We identify active Christians as those who participate in a church community at least twice per month and believe that their faith is important to them. We distinguish between Christians and active Christians because of the important difference between what people say and what they do. This distinction builds on an enormous body of research that consistently finds that regular church attendance is linked to physical and mental health. The bottom line: if you’re saying that your faith is not an important part of your life and you are not participating in a religious community, it’s probably not a priority.
After replicating the conventional result that SWB is highly cyclical, we found a few stark results. First, and consistent with prior studies, active Christians exhibit 6 percent greater current life satisfaction and are 6 percentage points more likely to report that they are thriving—a measure from Gallup that combines respondent information on both current life satisfaction and expected future life satisfaction over the next five years. Second, and at least as important, we found that SWB is either acyclical or slightly countercyclical for active Christians, whereas it is strongly procyclical for (inactive) Christians and theists. In this sense, active Christians have higher levels of SWB throughout the entire business cycle—not just in booms.
There are at least two explanations that can account for this finding. The first is that active Christians, because they are part of a community, are more likely to have a support network in hard times, especially to help cushion against income fluctuations due to difficult circumstances like job loss. That’s probably true, but is that all that’s going on, or is there something deeper beyond the church’s being an informal lending market?
We investigated how our estimated effects differ in counties that rank high versus low in terms of social capital as measured by the Joint Economic Committee. (Social capital refers to the degree of cohesion within a community, popularized in Robert Putnam’s important book Bowling Alone.) Importantly, there is no statistically significant difference in the relationships between SWB and employment growth for active Christians in the high versus the low social capital counties—that is, it is acyclical in both. However, we do not see that for those who more flippantly report “being Christian.” In fact, among these individuals, we only see the acyclical relationship in the high social capital counties, which supports an idea by Rodney Stark—called the “moral communities hypothesis”—that we need community to reinforce norms and beliefs.
While gross domestic product (GDP) and the unemployment rate are frequently cited metrics of economic performance, human flourishing is broader—it includes measures along the lines of what Gallup routinely measures, like SWB. Our results suggest that religious affiliation is an important driver behind SWB, even beyond the common factors of consumption and income. Fortunately, there are a handful of institutions that are thinking hard about this question, too. For example, Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program has pulled together a handful of scholars to study human flourishing from a data-driven perspective. Similarly, the Joint Economic Committee (JEC), under Sen. Mike Lee’s chairmanship and Scott Winship’s leadership, has recently made the understanding of social capital a driving priority for policymakers.
Technological change will not displace the importance of human relationships; if anything, the importance of having community will only grow as the temptation for social isolation through technology rises (e.g., see Jonathan Haidt’s writing on the adverse effects of social media). Our results suggest that religion, and religious communities, will continue to play a driving role in helping people cope with change by keeping their eyes pointed toward the eternal, even as storms surge around them.