Are churchgoers more cheerful than non-believers? A good deal of research points in that direction, and a new study provides corroborating evidence gleaned from a new medium: Twitter.
Scouring nearly two million tweets from followers of five Christian leaders and five well-known atheists, a research team led by University of Illinois psychologist Ryan Ritter found that “Christians express more happiness than atheists in everyday language.”
“Our results reveal important psychological differences between believers and nonbelievers, and also suggest reasons why believers may be happier than nonbelievers in general,” the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
This study “demonstrates a positive relationship between religion and happiness that can be observed in subtle differences in language use.”
Ritter and his colleagues analyzed more than 877,000 tweets from 7,557 Christians, and more than one million tweets from 8,716 atheists. The believers were followers of one or more of five major Christian public figures (Pope Benedict, Dinesh D’Souza, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, or Rick Warren); the non-believers followed one of more of five well-known atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Monica Salcedo, and Michael Shermer).
Using the computerized text analysis program Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, the researchers tallied the relative frequency of words expressing positive and negative emotions. They also looked at the usage of terms indicating social interaction (such as “friend”), and the presence of terms associated with intellectual analysis (including “think” and “consider”).
The results: In their tweets, Christians expressed more positive emotions, and fewer negative ones, than their atheist counterparts. In contrast, the non-believers tended to use “a more analytical thinking style,” which, the researchers write, is “associated with less happiness.”
“Christian followers were more likely to use insight words characterized by certainty and emotion, whereas atheist followers were more likely to use insight words characterized by skepticism and analysis,” they report. “The percentage of words expressing certainty was higher among Christian tweets than atheist tweets.”
In addition, “Christians talked more about social processes than atheists, which was in turn associated with more happiness,” the researchers write. “On average, 9.36 percent of words used by Christian followers were related to social processes, compared to 8.08 percent among atheist followers. [This is] consistent with the hypothesis that religion promotes social support and social connectivity.”
The researchers concede their study is not definitive. For one thing, computerized text analysis can miss important things (such as the ironic use of words). In addition, by choosing followers of those particular figures, they’ve likely created “a comparison of extremely conservative Christians to militant atheists,” which could exaggerate the differences between the two groups. (That’s an important point, given previous research finding the benefits of belief are largely limited to the most fervent believers.)
Nevertheless, as Ritter and his colleagues write, this study “demonstrates a positive relationship between religion and happiness that can be observed in subtle differences in language use.” But they quickly add that their findings do not suggest that “atheists are doomed to be miserable.”
“Atheists may improve happiness by creating strong social support networks,” they write—networks that mimic those found in a congregation or other religious community. In addition, they note, the social stigma against atheism—a likely source of dissatisfaction—will likely break down as secularism becomes more widespread.
“Increases in happiness among nonbelievers," they conclude, "should parallel increases in the availability of secular social support resources and increased feelings of being respected in society."