The happiest countries have the lowest rates of religiosity

It dawned on me recently, thanks to a reader’s question, that I wanted to know happy atheists are and is a country full of mostly non-believers would be a happy place to live. So, I looked up some statistics on happy countries and happy people in hopes of finding this out. I’ve met loads of happy atheists. I also know happy believers. I was curious though, when applied to the large scale of cities and countries, how much does religion (or lack thereof) play a part in happiness. I found some pretty interesting numbers.

Before I even start this, I want to point out that I CANNOT make the claim that having no religion makes you happier (except for myself… in which case, it’s absolutely true). As I have stated in previous blog posts, research shows that prisons are full of believers and believers tend to be “happier”, but this is due to going to church, not belief in god. I was dogged by many believers for not making a stronger case for the difference between correlation and causation. So… I will now.

I am not claiming religions causes unhappiness or that lack of belief causes happiness. But, as you will see from the research below, there is definitely a strong correlation between happiness in a country and lack of religion. Either happy countries don’t need as much religion or countries with less religion are happier. The big question looms… can a country of mostly atheists be a happy place? You decide for yourself.

I get this correlation by combining two easily found studies. The first is a study done by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. They polled 30 countries and found

DenmarkFinland and the Netherlands rated at the top of the list, ranking first, second and third, respectively. Outside Europe, New Zealand and Canada landed at Nos. 8 and 6, respectively. The United States did not crack the top 10. Switzerland placed seventh and Belgium placed tenth.

The report looked at subjective well-being, defined as life satisfaction. Did people feel like their lives were dominated by positive experiences and feelings, or negative ones?

To answer that question, the OECD used data from a Gallup World Poll conducted in 140 countries around the world last year. The poll asked respondents whether they had experienced six different forms of positive or negative feelings within the last day.

Some sample questions: Did you enjoy something you did yesterday? Were you proud of something you did yesterday? Did you learn something yesterday? Were you treated with respect yesterday? In each country, a representative sample of no more than 1,000 people, age 15 or older, were surveyed. The poll was scored numerically on a scale of 1-100. The average score was 62.4.

HERE IS A GREAT VISUAL REPRESENTATION OF THIS. So, we know that Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands are the “happiest” when compared to the others… and the United States isn’t even in the top 10. They don’t associate it to religion. But, “Overall economic health played a powerful role”, says Simon Chapple, senior economist from the Social Policy Division of the OECD, which put together the report. They attribute the results to the economy and to unemployment mostly.

Low unemployment also contributes to happiness. “One thing we know for sure,” says the OECD’s Chapple, “not having a job makes one substantially less satisfied.” Denmark’s unemployment rate is just 2 percent, according the C.I.A.’s World Factbook. Norway‘s is just 2.6 percent. The Netherlands: just 4.5 percent. Many economists concur that a 4 percent unemployment rate reflects a stable economy. The U.S. unemployment rate is currently 9 percent.

What do you think happens when you compare these same countries to a chart showing the amount of religious people in these areas? Surprise, surprise… the top four happiest countries on earth have some of the smallest populations of religious people… between 31% and 34%. You decide for yourself what that means. Switzerland placed seventh and Belgium placed tenth on the happiness scale and both have less than half of their population claiming any kind of religion (48% and 43% respectively).

The United States placed #12 on the list. We have around 15% of the population claiming no religion or atheist. When we look at our Happiest Cities, some interesting things jump out. California came in with cities at #5 (Santa Rosa), #6 (Santa Barbara), and #10 (Ventura). California is around 21% atheist or non-religious. The #1 city on the list? Boulder, Colorado. And, as a state, Colorado boasts a very high 25% non-religious group. So, while unemployment remains a problem across the entire United States, we find our happiest cities dotted across states with a high number of non-religious people. Interesting.

Conclusion – Again, we can’t be certain if these connections are causation or simply correlation. But, even if they are just a correlation, it’s still intriguing to think that so many happy places to live can exist on this earth where such a big % of people don’t rely on god to get their happiness. This should make Christians look at life, morals, happiness, and joy in a different way.

When I first came out as an atheist, I had an employee that asked me, “If you don’t believe in god, or heaven, why do you get up everyday?” What I told him then still rings true today. I responded, “The answer to the question shouldn’t be what concerns you. The fact that the answer isn’t ‘God’ is what’s important.” Tens of millions of us worldwide are “good without god” and that group is growing everyday. I, for one, am happy to be part of it.

  • Mikko H

    The quote neatly leaves out the Finnish unemployment numbers, which are nominally about the same as the U.S. ones, or possibly even worse at the moment. The Finnish statistics on this are probably somewhat more honest, though, and the proportion of the Finnish prison population is negligible in comparison to the huge U.S. one, which excluded from the unemployment figures.

  • owl

    So, the fact that they don't have a prison population NEGATES their happiness?? Even with unemployment, the Finns are a LOT happier then the typical American. Get real.

  • Adam

    @ Grady: Bad choice sir. Finland has a population of about 5.3 million people. Only 2,000 people died there last year from alcohol related deaths (0.0003% of the population)- according to your source.

    In the United States, the percent of adults 18 years of age and over who were current regular drinkers (at least 12 drinks in the past year): 52% – according to the CDC. Last year, alcohol related fatalities in the US were 85,000… 0.0003% – same as Finland.

    However, Finland has the highest rate of graduates in the world… so at least they are better educated than we are. People like to drink, no matter where they live.

  • Adam

    Grady's article was pointless. It in no way refutes what I proposed in the original post – Countries with the highest % or atheists also report to be the happiest. Alcohol may be the highest cause now but they die from all kinds of things, just like everyone else. For 2003 it was this: http://www.stat.fi/til/ksyyt/2003/ksyyt_2003_2005… They just don't have as many diseased and sick people as the US. Our rates are different: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm – much more related to bad health. Still doesn't say anything about happiness – they weren't all drunk when they were surveyed as Grady implies.

  • Robbie

    I wonder if alcoholism can be caused by depression during long, dark and cold Finnish winters?

    Another possible reason is that increase in deaths is connected to "macho" factor of men drinking more than women and combined with lower prices. Men are genetically programmed to act recklessly and risky behavior is nothing new among men in any culture.

    Another hypothesis (though tongue in cheek) Perhaps, all pretty women in Findland are lesbians and men are suffering emotionally?

    Heavy drinking is common among Finnish elderly males but not among females. The present study shows an increased all-cause mortality risk for males drinking, on average, more than two standard drinks per day. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19782479

    Another explanation – taxes on booze. Finland dropped the alcohol taxes radically on March 1st 2004. Prices of alcohol in Finland dropped around 22 percent. The primary reason for these taxes was to bring down the amount of alcohol brought outside Finnish borders, mainly from Russia and Estonia. But what did this booze-loving country do? Well started drinking more of course! And now they are considering of bringing the taxes back up…go figure =)
    http://www.metalfromfinland.com/finland/alcohol

    The easiest way of course is to blame it on Satan.

  • Robbie

    @Grady,

    So, you cannot of course disprove that Finnish men die at higher degrees from alchohol because of long cold winter nights thus increasing the "overall" rate of deaths (both men and women?) While at it, can you also disprove that they also get depressed because they don't get to work at Santa's toy shop which is not that far away from Finland?

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  • Believer

    Atheist will end up in eternal hell so if they aren't happy in this life when else can they be happy?

    My advice to the atheist, have as much fun as you can during your life because when it's over you'll end up in an eternal nightmare! Or even better, turn to God, ask for repentance

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RSHTQBI5T4KA64MWPUVG2YFAPM Martin

      Pathetic Believer……you can keep your angry torturing god……all yours.

      • Tolerance

        God is not angry or torturing. God is love.

        • Elisaul

          “Love me and be my friend (in other words, do as I tell you) or BURN in a place of eternal torture that I designed in advanced in case you didnt love me (aka. obey me)”

          He is more of a sadistic psychopath with multiple personality disorder, in the case of the Christian mythology. And I wouldnt be surprised if his followers also shared some of his (her?) mental illnesses.

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  • Born to watch

    So what are the unhappy countries
    Old communist atheist countrys.
    Communist atheist North Korea, China. Muslim countrys. Ex communist atheist countrys maybe.
    You seem to have left some information out. Skewed the result a bit maybe.

    Oddly it seems the affluent countrys with a Christian heritage are fairly happy, coincidence maybe?

    Lets see what a period of prolonged atheism does to their happiness.

  • gilly

    Wow nice stats
    Funny how most of those happy countrys are founded on Christian principles.
    Wonder how many of the 10 unhappiest countrys have the communist atheist principles behind them.
    Wonder how many of those unhappy countrys hate Christianity

    I love an atheist who hasnt the courage to show both sides of an argument, I love an atheist who is afraid of the truth. It makes me so warm inside that an atheist and a blog like this has to lie and mis represent the truth because it has a moral vacume.
    Lets talk censorship shall we
    Oh wait youd be atheists and they are against censorship, or just censorship that shows atheism for what it really is, afraid of the truth.

    Tell me why wont you publish my post

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  • Wil thompson

    Its an interesting corelation. As someone who has travelled to 64 countries in my 34 years, I’ve noticed it too. The big exception seems to be Japan where there is a very high degree non-religiosity. Other exceptions seem to be the Island States in the Pacific Ocean. The people there seemed very happy indeed and yet religion plays a very important part in most of their lives. However, broadly speaking, the corelation seems to be present in most countries I’ve visited.

  • chintan

    Both happiness and atheism are also correlated with strong social safety nets, and I’m guessing that’s not a coincidence.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RSHTQBI5T4KA64MWPUVG2YFAPM Martin

    But the moslems are working hard to islamise Scandinavia……and flood it with mosques……then they will be among the most miserable states in the world.

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  • Leif
    • Mr. Smith

      Taking into account that most of those nations are among the nations with the highest suicidal rate and that their definition of happiness is to have a high pay job, travel the world and have lots of sex it is no wonder that the majority of its inhabitants have no clue of what happiness is! http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-statistics.html

  • Hello

    Atheism and happiness are not correlated. What is correlated is respect and happiness.
    Nordic countries are happier because people respect everybody´s beliefs.