To Be Happy in Jesus
Evangelical Protestants are the happiest people in America. Or at least that's what they say.
Evangelicals are 26 percent more likely to describe themselves as "very happy" than Americans as a whole, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Almost half43 percentof evangelical Protestants described themselves that way, compared to only 34 percent of Americans.
Christian Smith, a sociologist at University of North Carolina, said there are many possible reasons why evangelical Protestants rate higher than others on happiness surveys.
Religion, especially Christianity, emphasizes forgiveness, reduction of anxiety through prayer, gratitude, and other virtues, Smith said. In addition to this, evangelical churches provide various tools, teachings, beliefs, and practices that tend to increase happiness.
Evangelical Christianity, he said,"gives a perspective that's more thankful, and that makes one more happy and appreciative than a perspective that asks, 'Why didn't I get what I deserve?'"
Many Americans probably define happiness in "a consumerist, superficial sense of I'm feeling good," Smith said. "There's a part of me that thinks evangelicals are kind of superficial" as well, he said. "But if it's well-defined, happiness is good."
It's probably not well-defined by most evangelicals surveyed, said Ruth Tucker, a missions professor at Calvin Theological Seminary who wrote about happiness in her recent book Walking Away from Faith. The Pew poll, she says, simply shows that evangelicals are expected to be happy.
"We all know the song 'If You're Happy and You Know It.' There are a number of little jingles like that about happiness in children's choruses," Tucker said. "Happiness is kind of a mark for an evangelical. We make it important in our choruses, in our megachurches, and in evangelism."
Tucker said she doesn't think happiness is necessarily biblical, but it is preached from church pulpits as a Christian calling.
"There's very little room in megachurches for lament and grief and expressing one's deep sadness," Tucker said. "If you feel deep depression or sadness and are going through a rough time, you are told to stay home from church."
The contemporary church's pursuit of happiness is markedly different from historical Christianity's, said Florida State University professor Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History. Christians in the early church, he said, did not expect to have happiness before death. Much of Augustine's City of God, he notes, criticizes those who seek perfect happiness in this world. Original sin, Augustine wrote, made earthly happiness impossible.
"It's only relatively recently, since the 18th century, that people expected religion to make them happy," McMahon said. "In a way, it's a perverse affirmation of the Enlightenment."
Belief or practice?
As a whole, evangelicals are 30 percent happier than mainline Protestants. Only one of three mainline Protestants told pollsters they were very happy. But the differences between evangelical and mainline Protestants disappear after taking religious attendance into account, said Cary Funk, senior project director at Pew Research Center.
In fact, of Protestants who do not attend church at least weekly, mainline Protestants are more likely than evangelicals to say they are very happy.
"It's more about frequent church attendance than it is about particular sets of beliefs," Funk said. "This asks, 'How different are they?' and suggests maybe they're not that different."