University of Mannheim: Religiousness makes poor people happier

For decades, social science research has assumed that a low income has a negative effect on people’s psychological well-being. Previously, it was assumed that this effect would weaken as countries develop economically. The opposite is the case, however: a low income has a greater impact on people’s satisfaction with life in rich countries than in developing countries. The reasons for this unexpected observation have so far been unclear. Since the residents of economically strong countries are on average less religious than those of poorer countries, an international research team led by Prof. Dr. Jochen Gebauer and Jana Berkessel from the Mannheim Heisenberg Professorship for Comparative Cultural Social and Personality Psychologyexamined the relationship between socio-economic status, psychological well-being and religiosity. The result: poorer people are always less satisfied than their richer fellow citizens. In poor and religious countries, however, this effect is much less pronounced than in the western industrial nations, in which religion plays a smaller role.

The scientists attribute these findings to the norms associated with people’s beliefs: Most world religions, such as Christianity and Islam, are critical of wealth and attach positive importance to a simple life. The Koran, for example, promises that poor people will be admitted to paradise 500 years ago. So a poor person in a religious country lives in an environment that paints a positive picture of poverty. This protects mental well-being from the negative consequences of poverty – in contrast to the well-being of a poor person in a non-religious country where these protective religious norms are simply lacking. “Faith cushions the effects of poverty, by giving the people affected consolation and confidence, ”says psychologist Berkessel. “At the same time, in more religious countries, monetary wealth is assigned a lower social value.”

The results of the study suggest that as secularization progresses, the negative effects of low income become increasingly stronger. Berkessel therefore warns against underestimating the function of religion for communal coexistence in future political decisions: “With the elimination of religiosity, we will need other approaches in the future to remedy the psychological stress that a low income can bring.” Others Institutions would have to ensure the life satisfaction of members of lower social classes. For example, an extensive welfare state, as can be found in Scandinavian countries, could compensate for the decline in religiosity.