On link between religiosity and well-being, India is an outlier | Mint

On link between religiosity and well-being, India is an outlier

The central question is whether religiosity has promoted well-being or detracted from it.
The central question is whether religiosity has promoted well-being or detracted from it.

Summary

Religiosity rose in 2019 and 2020 relative to 2018, presumably in reaction to an unrelenting pursuit of Hindutva in the country.

If recent evidence is to be believed, as reviewed in a recent essay in The Guardian, ‘Beyond beliefs: Does religious faith lead to a happier, healthier life?’, religiosity (such as regular attendance of church, temples, mosques, synagogues and various other religious beliefs and activities) is indeed a panacea for happiness or subjective well-being (used interchangeably with life satisfaction). The evidence comes from multiple disciplines—like medicine, psychology, sociology and economics—and sources that are global, regional and country specific. Notable examples are World Values Surveys and Gallup World Poll surveys. A sample of evidence suggests that religiosity is associated with better health, lower risk of depression, anxiety and suicide, and reduced cardiovascular disease and death from cancer. An examination of 1,000 obituaries in the US revealed that people marked by their faith lived for 5.6 years more, on average, than those whose religion had not been recorded. It is suggested that people of faith live healthier lives than the non-religious, as studies show that churchgoers are less likely to smoke, drink, take drugs or practise unsafe sex than people who do not attend such services regularly (there are, of course, notable exceptions).

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Important contributions by Helliwell (2003) and Deaton (2011), among others, support the view that religiosity enhances subjective well-being or overall life satisfaction and happiness. Deaton reports that at least on average across all countries (even when disaggregated into income groups), religious people do better on a number of health and health-related indicators. These protective effects appear to be stronger in poor countries, as religion can offer a route to a better life in these, than in rich ones, and stronger for men than women. However, this may be a two-way relationship in the sense that these two variables influence each other. Two important findings have been noted. One, psychological health appears to be more closely correlated with SWB than physical health, but this is not surprising given the close correspondence between psychological health and subjective well-being (SWB). Some of the association may be caused by the impact that well-being has on health, but the effect sizes of the health variables are substantial, which suggests that even after accounting for the impact of SWB on health, the effect of health on SWB is still significant (Kohler et al, 2017). Further, specific conditions such as heart attacks and strokes reduce well-being, and the causality here is more likely to be from the health condition to SWB.

Let us now turn to evidence from India, based on a rigorous econometric analysis of the Gallup World Poll Survey covering 2018-2021. Although there is abundant literature on Hindutva, an aggressive form of Hinduism, our focus is on religiosity, which is distinct from but not disconnected from it altogether. The central question is whether religiosity during this period has promoted well-being or detracted from it. Specifically, we examine the covariates of religiosity and subjective well-being; these outcomes are simultaneously determined.

Religiosity is defined as whether an individual attaches high importance to religion and practices associated with it. Subjective well-being or life evaluation is based on a compressed form of the Cantril ladder (1965), which has been widely used. The scale used runs from 0 to 10, with the highest value representing the highest well-being. The Gallup World Poll for India compresses the scale into three broad brackets: ‘suffering’, ‘struggling’ and ‘thriving’.

Religiosity in India is higher among Muslims, the survey found, relative to Hindus, who constitute the majority. Religiosity is also higher among Indians in the 51-60-years age group than among those in the younger age group of 15-50 years. This is so among all. The data also suggests that this link of age with religiosity is stronger than a generally observed ‘minority effect’ across all ages, Muslims being both fewer in India and more religious.

There are other group classifications, too, for which some differences were found. Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) show higher religiosity than those who are none of these. More deprived socio-economic castes are thus more likely to be religious than relatively privileged castes. A likely link with deprivation is reinforced by the fact that the higher the per capita income, the lower is the religiosity.

Overall, females show higher religiosity than males. If the sample is disaggregated by region, relative to the north, the country’s east, west, south and central zones show higher religiosity. Further, deprivation of freedom, an issue fraught with tension under the Bharatiya Janata Party regime, lowers religiosity, while civic engagement promotes it.

Finally, religiosity rose in 2019 and 2020 relative to 2018, presumably in reaction to an unrelenting pursuit of Hindutva in the country. It has long been observed that attacks on minorities in various forms tend to harden their religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, heightened religiosity is associated with a lowering of well-being, and this effect is large.

Among the demographic variables that were studied, Indian females exhibit greater well-being than males. While those separated from their spouses may be expected to show lower well-being, those living alone are found to be better-off than the group of married individuals. Well-being rises with household size, presumably because of economies of scale in consumption and family support systems acting as ‘insurance’ during phases of unemployment, illness or other kinds of personal distress. Relatively deprived socio-economic castes (OBCs, SCs and STs) are likely to have lower well-being than other castes. Residents of urban India are also more likely to be better-off than those in rural areas. All education levels show significantly higher well-being relative to those with only primary education.

Many findings on well-being are self-explanatory. The greater the affluence of an individual or a region, for example, the higher the well-being. Also, the greater the level of freedom, the higher the happiness, relative to its absence. We also find that the greater the civic engagement, the higher the well-being. Finally, SWB was lower in 2019 but higher in 2020, relative to 2018.

In sum, contrary to substantial empirical evidence across the world that favours religiosity as a panacea for well-being or happiness, our analysis of trends on this subject in India points the other way. It is not mere speculation that the relationship between religiosity and well-being has turned negative due to suppression of dissent and an aggressive pursuit of Hindutva.

Aashi Gupta, Vani S. Kulkarni & Raghav Gaiha are, respectively, a doctoral student in economics at Delhi School of Economics, and research affiliates at the Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, US.

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