What makes people happy? This question can be difficult to answer. Happiness has been discussed throughout history. Philosophers, thinkers and activists, such as Aristippus, Aristotle, Zhuangzi, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Benthan and Bertrand Russell, have considered happiness and life satisfaction to be one of the highest goals of human motivation.

But happiness and life satisfaction can be tricky to define. While both make up part of a person’s well-being, happiness refers to an individual’s emotions, feelings or moods. Life satisfaction, on the other hand, is more to do with the way people might think about their life as a whole – including their relationships.

Previous research suggests the “happy person” is young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, optimistic and extroverted. The same research found the happiest people tend to be religious, married, with high self-esteem and job morale and modest aspirations. It seems your gender and level of intelligence don’t necessarily come into it.

Research suggests that around the world, over 84% of people belong to or are connected to a religious group. And our recent research looks at whether different religions experience different levels of happiness and life satisfaction. The findings show that individual religiosity and their country’s level of development both affect people’s happiness and life satisfaction.

Happiness research

Our study looks at a large number of different religious groups across 100 countries – from 1981 to 2014 – using data from the World Value Survey.

Our findings suggest that Protestants, Buddhists and Roman Catholics are happier and more satisfied with their lives, compared with other groups. Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and the non-religious were in between, while Orthodox Christians were found to have the lowest happiness and life satisfaction rates.

In our research, we found that many factors were positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction. These included being Protestant, female, married and younger (16 to 24 years old). The household’s financial situation also came into it, as did a person’s state of health and freedom of choice.

We discovered that national pride and trust were important in terms of happiness rankings, as was having friends, family and leisure time. Attending weekly religious practice was also discovered to be an important factor. On the other hand, being unemployed and on a low income was negatively associated with happiness and life satisfaction.

A closer look at the magnitude of the association between these factors and happiness and life satisfaction revealed that health, financial stability and freedom of choice, or control over one’s life were the most important factors. But more research needs to be done to understand why some religious groups are happier and more satisfied than others.

A global objective

In recent years, interest in well-being research has surged – with economists such as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz agreeing it is time to shift the emphasis from measuring economic production, to measuring people’s happiness and life satisfaction.

But to make human happiness the overall guide to human progress requires good data on the quality of human lives – and this is something that is sadly still lagging in most countries.

In the meantime, it might be worth both individuals and governments engaging with positive psychology. New research shows that schools teaching positive psychology radically improves the happiness of pupils in countries as varied as Peru, China, Bhutan and Australia.

It’s clear then that while happiness can mean different things to different people, there are some fundamental uniting principles that make us more likely to feel happy or unhappy. And as our findings suggest, by improving access to healthcare and supporting their basic financial needs, governments can do much to help boost people’s well-being and life satisfaction.