Dec. 20, 2013 at 5:10 PM ET
Wealth has plenty of advantages, but it can’t give your life meaning — although religion might.
New research finds that people who live in poor countries that have a strong collective sense of religiosity feel that their life is meaningful, even in the face of economic hardship. Residents of wealthier countries, which also tend to be less religious, don’t have the same sense of a purpose in life.
Psychology professors Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener, from the University of Virginia and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively, looked at Gallup World Poll results in which people were asked: “Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?” and if religion played an important role in their lives.
They found that respondents from countries ranking high on the religious scale but low in terms of GDP reported a greater sense of life’s meaning. “The overwhelming majority of residents in poor nations report having an important purpose or meaning in life,” they wrote.
With the absence of creature comforts, disposable income and leisure time, religion can emerge as a driving force in some countries and cultures, which is what makes the difference, Oishi and Diener found.
“Religion gives a system that connects daily experiences with the coherent whole and a general structure to one’s life… [It] plays a critical role in constructing meaning out of extreme hardship,” they wrote. By contrast, poor countries such as Haiti, where religion doesn’t play as big a role, report a lower sense of meaning in life.
Oishi and Diener looked at indicators like education, social support and fertility rates to eliminate other reasons why people might find purpose in life, and concluded that religiosity has the most influence.
“As society becomes wealthier, religion becomes less central to people’s life,” they wrote. “As religion becomes less central to people’s life, more people lose a sense of meaning in life.
Residents of more affluent places like Hong Kong, Japan and France reported among the lowest levels of a sense of life purpose. By contrast, countries not typically associated with emotional well-being like Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Kyrgyzstan had the greatest sense of meaning in life, although their GDPs trailed most of the other nations studied.
The United States is a bit of an outlier, landing fairly high on both wealth and life purpose measurement scales. Oishi said this is because, in spite of our overall wealth, the U.S. remains a strongly religious nation. “That is (partly) why meaning in life is quite high despite high GDP per capita,” he said via email. “Religious attendance is substantially higher in the U.S. than EU nations (and Japan).”
This isn’t the first time academics have concluded that wealth comes with some drawbacks as well as benefits. In a 2010 study, researchers from Princeton University found that Americans’ sense of well-being grows in tandem with their incomes, but day-to-day happiness increases with income only up to $75,000.
Other research also indicates that religion could have a beneficial role to play in economics, especially for company shareholders. A new study by the University of Toronto found that companies based in more religious communities in the United States were less likely to withhold information that later led to the company’s stock diving.
Even if the companies and their executives weren’t religious, researchers concluded that the social norms of being in a religious community were enough to affect corporate decision-making.