Thursday, October 28, 2010

For Happiness, Sitting in Church Beats Shopping at the Mall

A new study suggests that a decline in religious participation, and an increase in shopping opportunities, could be making us miserable.

By Emily Main,
Can money buy happiness? No, and neither can spending money, suggest researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Their as-yet-unpublished study took a look at consumer shopping habits over the last three decades and compared it to participation in religious activities, and found that, among women, money makes us much less happy than going to church.
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The Details: The authors used data collected by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Council. The Council conducts a "General Social Survey" annually or biannually, and collects information from a sample of adults over 18 on their happiness levels. Looking specifically at adults who lived in states where "blue laws" (laws prohibiting commercial activity on Sundays) had been repealed between 1973 and 1998, they compared the happiness levels of adults with reported church attendance over that 25-year period. (Because Christians are most likely to attend church on Sundays, while Jews and Muslims normally attend religious services on Fridays or Saturdays, the researchers looked specifically at Christians for this study.)

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Women, but not men, seemed to experience a steep decline in both church attendance and their happiness levels over the course of the 25-year post-blue law period. The data showed that blue law repeals decreased the likelihood of people reporting that they were "pretty happy" to "not happy" by at least 17 percent. But the authors also noted that people whose religious participation didn't change after blue laws were repealed reported no drop in happiness levels. Using other data collected from the survey, the researchers ruled out the possibility that the declines could be related to women's increased participation in the workforce or to family issues.

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What It Means: We could all stand to take a "day of rest" from commercialism to get some perspective on what makes us truly happy, whether we consider ourselves religious or not. For those who attend them, religious services provide fellowship and often give people a greater sense of meaning to life, says Danny Cohen-Zada, PhD, assistant professor in the department of economics at Ben-Gurion University and lead author of the study. And he adds that although his study looked only at people who identified themselves as Christian, the relationship between religion and happiness would likely hold true for women of other faiths as well.

But if attending services makes people happier, why don't people go more regularly, or go back if they've stopped going? Cohen-Zada has a few theories, he says, foremost among them is simply that shopping provides more immediate gratification. "Since immediate satisfaction from shopping is higher than from religious participation, they choose shopping even if they know that in the long run they would be less happy," he says. "In addition to this, the addictive nature of shopping helps them to choose the immediate lower satisfaction over the long-run higher satisfaction." In the long run, he says, "People derive greater satisfaction from religious participation than from shopping. Our work contributes to the idea that money is overrated, and other factors, including religion, tend to be underrated."

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Here are a few ways to avoid falling into the trap of turning to shopping as a way to derive some immediate gratification and a false sense of happiness:

1. Institute your own "blue laws."

Whether you choose Sunday or some other day of the week that better fits with your schedule, designate one day of every week as a no shopping day. (And yes, that includes shopping online.) Instead, use that day to spend more time with family or to find some other activity you find fulfilling. A study published earlier this year even suggests that it could make you more attractive in other people's eyes: The study found that people who are considered more experiential, meaning they spend money on experiences rather than things, are more attractive than materialistic people.

2. Find religion, whether you're religious or not.

In his study, Cohen-Zada found that for each point increase in church-service attendance, self-reported happiness increased by 10.7 percent. Even those who don't consider themselves religious can tap into that happiness factor through prayer or meditation, says advisor Jeffrey Rossman, PhD. He suggests sharing your feelings with a higher power—even if that means "the universe" or a wise, caring part of yourself. Doing so allows you to open up to something greater than yourself, and eases the feeling that you need to bear every burden on your own.

3. Take a walk.

We've all been known to indulge in "retail therapy" when we're feeling unhappy. But as this study suggests, buying things, or even engaging in the simple act of shopping, doesn't provide us with long-term happiness. The next time you're tempted to hit the mall to relieve stress, imagine yourself late in life looking back on what you buy, and you'll probably realize that stuff will provide you with very short-lived satisfaction. Instead, call a friend to chat, head to your house of worship, or simply go for a walk. Multiple studies have shown that time in nature makes us happier, anyway.

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