A new study published in PLOS One has found that people who believe in hell are less likely to be happy. The authors found that a belief in Heaven was consistently associated with “greater happiness and life satisfaction,” while people who believed in Hell were more likely to be unhappy and have lower life satisfaction.

Previous research has actually shown that belief in hell — or “supernatural malevolence” — has correlated with improved rule-following and less crime in certain countries. A higher number of people who believe in hell has also been associated with higher GDP growth and lower national crime.

However, even though belief in hell could lead to positive effects at a national level, on an individual level, there’s another side to the story: writing or thinking about hell can make people feel more emotionally down. “It seems there is a trade-off,” Azim Shariff, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, told LiveScience.

The researchers reviewed international survey data to see how a belief in Heaven or hell could affect a person’s daily emotional state, as well as long-term life satisfaction. They focused primarily on people who believed in one, but not the other, and found that believing in hell could actually make you more unhappy. They analyzed survey data from 63 countries. Christianity and Islam were the most common religions throughout these countries. Interestingly enough, the researchers discovered that there wasn’t much of a difference whether a person was Muslim or Christian; they were generally happier if they believed in Heaven, and unhappy if they believed in some hell.

Religion has been shown, in some studies, to improve emotional and psychological well-being. Shariff suggests this probably stems from the community feeling religion provides, as well as the connections with other people it fosters: “Religious people tend to be happier, or at least they report they are happier, and that is probably driven by the social aspect of religion,” he told LiveScience. Shariff says that it's this emotional and social connection to religion, and not simply the belief in Heaven on its own, is what makes believers experience a sound sense of well-being.

Since Heaven is a positive concept, people may be happier when they think about it, in comparison to thinking about the negative connotations of hell. Hell is linked to the idea of a punitive god, and fear of punishment, though it may prevent some from committing crimes, can also make an individual more anxious. However, the researchers pointed out that it's also possible that people who are originally more unhappy may be more likely to think about hell, or believe in it.

 

Source: Shariff A, Aknin L. “The Emotional Toll of Hell: Cross-National and Experimental Evidence for the Negative Well-Being Effects of Hell Beliefs.” PLOS ONE, 2014.