Religion and Well-Being

The New York Times has just published an interactive map detailing the well-being of Americans, according to a 3-year poll conducted by Gallup.  The map provides an overview of well-being, by congressional district, and can be manipulated to show individual criteria that Gallop used to create their composite.  Among the individual categories are: obesity, stress, exercise, job satisfaction, depression, diabetes, nighttime safety, and inadequate food. 

Anyone with an interest in national polls and state-by-state comparisons, will notice that the maps revealed by the Gallup Well-Being poll have a lot in common with some other maps related to the American mindset.

For starters, here is the composite map detailing Well-Being in America. The darker states are those reporting a higher well-being index, whereas the lighter states are those reporting a lesser sense of well-being.

Now let's take a look at a map illustrating the results of another Gallop poll from 2009 which identified the most religious states in America. The darker states are the most religious, whereas the lightest states are the least religious.

Although the maps are not identical, one can clearly identify the Southeast US as being, by far, the most religious areas of America.  A quick look back to the map of American Well-being, we can clearly identify the Southeast as being the front-runner when it comes to a lack of perceived well-being. 

Another map of interest is a breakdown of the 2008 presidential election results. 

Again, we see some similarities.  Almost all of the states defined by the Gallup religion poll as being "Most religious" or "More religious" went to McCain in the 2008 election.  And with the exception of North Carolina, all states that were defined as "Most Religious" went to McCain.  The very same states with the lowest sense of well-being.  This map, although not an indicator of well-being, does raise some interesting questions, since a ballot often provide insight into the wants, needs, and hopes of the electorate.

Or how about poverty?

While there are countless ways to slice and dice the data provided by polls, surveys, the census, or election results, the correlation between religiosity and well-being, poverty, and political ideology is hard to ignore.  And certainly, just as we know that no state is truly a red state or a blue state (they are actually different shades of purple), we know that there are certainly pockets of highly religious people in less-religious states, and vice versa.  I  am quite aware that I have picked only a few maps here for comparison, and that there are many others out there that may tell other stories, but these came to my mind instantly upon viewing the New York Times Well-Being maps.  But looking over these maps it's hard not to ask some of the following questions:

Are people more religious when they are less happy (or lacking in their sense of well-being)? Or, conversely, are people less happy because they live in more religious areas of the country?

We see that conservatives tend to be concentrated in more religious states, and that is not surprising.  Yet, when we look at the well-being index, one might ask why are those who are less healthy and poorer supporting ideologies that are largely against health care reform and universal coverage?  (One might argue that supporting the conservative, religious values of conservative candidates is more important to these folks than supporting the less religious candidate who wants to provide assistance.)

Why are some of our least religious states like New Hampshire, Washington, Connecticut, Vermont, and Alaska reporting some of the higher instances of well-being?  (North Dakota and Utah are the outliers here, as high well-being indexes and high religiosity -- high concentrations of Lutherans and Mormons, respectively.)

If we were to look elsewhere in the world, we would find that the top four happiest countries in the world, according to Gallup, are Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden. Also according to Gallup data, Sweden, Denmark and Norway were the second, third, and fourth least religious states in the world (Estonia beat them all).

Sociologists have long theorized that, as societies modernize, they become more secularized.  Many scholars state that, as societies learn to answer life's mysteries through the advancement of science and the gaining of knowledge, the need for religion decreases.  This is certainly an area of fierce debate, but as we continue to pore over the expanding ocean of data, we will continue to ask questions about religion's relationship to our well-being.

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