A recent Gallup poll offers an ambiguous picture of how Americans are doing as we (we hope) start to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic: Although 85 percent of respondents reported being very or somewhat satisfied with their lives, only 17 percent were satisfied with the direction of the country as a whole. While slightly up from last year’s 11 percent following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, this measure of “national satisfaction” still reflects a generally bleak mood. What is driving life satisfaction for individual Americans? And is there any hope for national satisfaction?
What is driving life satisfaction for individual Americans? And is there any hope at the national level?
Gallup’s findings offer some intriguing evidence for the first question. According to the poll, a better predictor of life satisfaction than educational attainment or even income was religious service attendance: 67 percent of weekly service attenders reported being “very satisfied,” whereas that was true for only 51 percent of the nation as a whole, and for only 61 percent of those making at least $100,000 a year. But how can we tell that religious participation is actually causing people to flourish? What if instead people with low life satisfaction — those with serious illness or disability, for instance — are just less likely to attend religious services?
Our team at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has conducted a number of studies to assess how religious participation affects the various ways Americans thrive over time. One of our recent studies, using data gathered over many years on tens of thousands of U.S. children, retirees and nurses, yielded results similar to those of the Gallup poll cited above: Religious participation strongly predicted higher subsequent life satisfaction, even after controlling for prior health, socio-economic status and other demographic factors.
Religious participation seems to promote individual flourishing in a variety of interlocking ways, beginning with the friendships it fosters. In 2010, Chaeyoon Lim (of the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Robert Putnam (of Harvard University) estimated that about half of the effect on satisfaction comes from deep and supportive relationships. The effects are also particularly strong with respect to marriage, with weekly service attenders being about 50 percent less likely to divorce than never-attenders. Religious participation also strongly protects against self-destructive behaviors: One of our studies found that, compared with never-attenders, regular attenders were substantially less likely (68 percent less likely for women, 33 percent less likely for men) to die from alcohol poisoning, drug overdose or suicide.
But service attendance doesn’t merely protect against dysfunction; it also seems to promote positive actions and attitudes, including greater generosity with one’s time and money, and a greater sense of purpose in life. These strong effects of religious participation may explain some of the 8 percent percent drop in life satisfaction that Gallup reported from 2020 to 2021, as lockdowns forced many religious communities to halt in-person gatherings for months on end. As Covid restrictions relax and many Americans resume pre-pandemic habits, including service attendance and other forms of meaningful social engagement, we can hope that this positive trend in life satisfaction will continue.
As Covid restrictions relax and many Americans resume pre-pandemic habits, we can hope that this positive trend in life satisfaction will continue.
But if Americans are doing reasonably well given the difficulties of the past two years, what explains that yawning 68-point gap between life satisfaction and national satisfaction? This likely reflects the fact that when Americans consider national satisfaction, they consider a range of factors beyond their individual well-being.
As one of us proposed in a recent paper, community well-being includes not only aggregate individual flourishing but arguably also factors such as “proficient leadership,” “healthy practices” of deliberation and conflict resolution, and “a strong mission.” Our dismal level of national satisfaction seems to reflect a bipartisan consensus: 96 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats believe America is doing poorly on these (and doubtless other) dimensions of communal well-being.
A flourishing community requires proficient leadership, but of late, Americans have witnessed striking failures of leadership from within both major parties, whether in the Biden administration’s recent withdrawal-turned-rout in Afghanistan, or congressional Republicans’ ongoing fecklessness over holding anyone accountable for the Capitol riot. A flourishing community requires “healthy practices” of conflict resolution, but a new study documents a 23 percent increase since 2009 in “incivility” by members of Congress on Twitter.
Perhaps most critically, a flourishing community requires a “strong mission,” but sometimes it can seem that neither major party today stands for much that is shared. Religious communities, as noted above, promote individual flourishing by drawing participants into the pursuit of a transcendent good in community with others. Perhaps national satisfaction is so low because as a nation we’ve largely lost the sense of ourselves as a genuine community, much less one engaged in a common pursuit of the collective good.
So while relatively high levels of individual satisfaction are encouraging, we also need to preserve the societal fabric that supports individuals and relationships. Religious communities — and all communities — have a critical role to play in encouraging all of us to think about what’s good for everyone. Maybe then more of us will feel that our country, our communities and ourselves are flourishing equally.