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Religiosity and Life Satisfaction Across Countries: New Insights from the Self-Determination Theory


In this paper we try to shed new light on the aggregate religion puzzle: the fact that the positive relationship between religiosity and cognitive subjective well-being that has been consistently found at the individual level does not emerge at the aggregate level. We posit the hypothesis that the motivation underlying the observance of religious prescriptions may be confounding the relationship of interest. Using data from the Integrated Values Survey 1981–2014, we select some variables as possible proxies for the prevalent religious motivation and discuss this novel interpretation. Then we extend a standard cross-country life satisfaction model including controls for both the average level of religiosity and the prevalent motivation. Results show that the average level of religiosity is ceteris paribus positive and significantly associated with average life satisfaction. Moreover, our main proxy for the prevalent religious motivation also emerges highly significantly associated with average life satisfaction. The estimations are subjected to a wide variety of robustness checks and results remain largely unchanged. Moreover we carry out a thoroughly discussion of the endogeneity issues that may affect our results exploiting the panel nature of the data. We conclude that our results seem reasonably reliable, are consistent with findings of the previous literature, and point to a possible explanation of the different evolution of the religious phenomenon across countries.

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  1. Norris and Inglehart (2004) point out that the traditional secularization theory comprises two complementary theses. The first one concerns religious values and believes, and the second one the role of religion in sustaining social solidarity and cohesion. The former is mostly owed to Max Weber and basically asserts that the gradual spread of a rational view of the world based on empirical standards of proof, scientific knowledge of natural phenomena, and technological mastery of the universe may progressively undermine religious values and believes. The other thesis is mostly owed to Emile Durkheim and states that the increasing number of specialized professionals and organizations and the expansion of the welfare state may gradually substitute religions in the provision of healthcare, education, social control, and welfare safety nets. The problem is that these theses are at odds with the evidence that religions have not disappeared from the world, not even from the most socio-economically developed countries.

  2. Reported life satisfaction is a commonly used measure of cognitive subjective well-being (Luhmann et al. 2012). Other usual measures are Cantril Ladder life evaluations and reported happiness with life overall (Helliwell et al. 2015). We are interested in cognitive subjective well-being in general; consequently in the literature review we may use the term life satisfaction, life evaluation, or overall happiness depending on the specific measure used by the different researchers. Moreover, following a standard practice we may use the term ‘life evaluation’ to refer to any cognitive evaluation of life overall, thus encompassing the three previously seen measures.

  3. Graham and Chattopadhyay (2009) do not find the usual positive association between religiosity and overall happiness in Afghanistan. They argue that in this country, contrary to what happens in other places, religion is a subject of extreme political and societal divisions. Otherwise, evidence shows that not being affiliated to the majority religious denomination in a country moderates the overall association between religiosity and life evaluations (Clark and Lelkes 2009; Graham and Crown 2014).

  4. Inglehart et al. (2008) find that the aggregate level of religiosity predicts future average (cognitive) subjective well-being. However their sample of countries is very limited.

  5. Internalization refers “to the process through which an individual transforms a formerly externally prescribed regulation or value into an internal one” (Ryan et al. 1993:586).

  6. In the light of the self-determination theory, the government restrictions on religious freedom examined by Hayward and Elliott (2014) may reflect the prevalence of an external form of regulation. The finding of a positive interaction between religious freedom and personal religiosity suggests that, as the self-determination theory predicts, the association between religiosity and life satisfaction is higher in those countries in which religious individuals are more autonomous. In fact, Hayward and Elliott’s (2014) interpretation in terms of the self-categorization theory is very much in line with the interpretation suggested by the self-determination theory.

  7. In the EVS and the second wave of the WVS this question includes eight response categories: “more than once a week,” “once a week,” “once a month,” “Christmas/Easter day,” “other specific holy days,” “once a year,” “less often,” “never, practically never.” In the rest of WVS rounds, categories “Christmas/Easter day” and “other specific holy days” are merged under the category “only on special holy days.” We transform previous data accordingly.

  8. This measure assesses a current social norm that may differ from the social norm affecting respondents in their childhood. However, we are interested on the contemporaneous effect of the current social norm. Besides, we expect this social norm to be rather stable, as is the case with other cultural traits (e.g., Alesina and Giuliano, 2010, regarding values concerning the family).

  9. In the EVS and first three waves of the WVS this question includes five response categories: ‘very good,’ ‘good,’ ‘fair,’ ‘poor,’ and ‘very poor.’ Since the fourth wave of the WVS this health measure has been transformed into a 4-point scale variable merging last two categories (‘poor’ and ‘very poor’). We transform previous data accordingly.

  10. Helliwell et al. (2017) mention four public institutions: police, legal system, parliament and politicians. We focus on police and parliament to maximise the sample size.

  11. Due to data constraints we do not control for generosity in our main estimations, however we would perform some robustness checks controlling for altruism using a smaller sample and data from Helliwell et al. (2019).

  12. We keep individuals aged 18 + years. We drop observations from Bosnia from the third wave of the WVS because the sample is not representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We merge observations from Northern Cyprus and Cyprus from the fourth wave of the EVS to have representative data for Cyprus at a whole—observations are weighted according to the population of each of these entities in that year according to the Statistical Service Republic of Cyprus (2009). Regarding observations from Serbia and Montenegro from the fifth wave of the WVS, according to the study description included in the results book of the fifth wave the target population was the population of Serbia of voting age, therefore we assign such observations to Serbia.

  13. Western Europe; Central and Eastern Europe; Commonwealth of Independent States; South Asia; South-east Asia; East Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; North America, Australia and New Zealand; Middle East and North Africa; and Sub-Saharan Africa.

  14. All computations were performed with R version 3.6.1 (R Core Team, 2018), using the package clubSandwich (Pustejovsky, 2019) for the estimation of cluster-robust standard errors.

  15. The estimation of model 11 suggests that the coefficient on attend in model 5 is capturing part of the effect of the other two religiosity variables. In this regard, the joint contribution of the three religiosity variables is almost marginally significant in model 11, although we cannot reject the hypothesis that the coefficients on attend, religious, and god are zero (F = 2.065, p-value = 0.106).

  16. In the last two rounds of the WVS (fifth and sixth) the wording of the second response category has changed from “rather happy” to “quite happy.”.

  17. Personality traits are not expected to be a source of bias at the country level.

  18. Table 8 in the appendix shows the frequencies of the religious variables.


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This study is part of the project: “Subjective Well-being and Human Development: Explaining the Latino American Paradox”. Authors want to acknowledge financial support provided by the University of Cantabria through the program: “Convocatoria Poyectos Emergentes UC—2016”

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Correspondence to Borja López-Noval.

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see Table 7 and 8.

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Domínguez, R., López-Noval, B. Religiosity and Life Satisfaction Across Countries: New Insights from the Self-Determination Theory. J Happiness Stud 22, 1165–1188 (2021).

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  • Life satisfaction
  • Religiosity
  • Self-determination theory
  • Integrated values survey