Humans are exceptionally bad at predicting what will make us happy. We place our bets on more money, a smaller dress size, a better title at work, and children, but none of this really brings happiness. What does? Sex, nature, optimism, and God.
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) profiled about 2,000 American adults in the early months of 2017; according to the study, 61 percent of spiritual but not religious people and 70 percent of spiritual and religious people reported being "very" or "completely" satisfied with their life. Compare that to the 53 percent of those who were religious but not spiritual, and 47 percent of those who were neither.
It also turns out that people who have religious or spiritual beliefs are happier than those who don't, no matter what their beliefs. According to Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College, religious and spiritual beliefs "give people a sense of meaning," and help us make sense of tragedy, struggle, and loss.
As spiritual-but-not-religious people know — and that is how almost 20 percent of Americans identify—a sense of the sacred can extend beyond cathedral or mosque walls. The single greatest spiritual experience was not prayer or meditation but music: 71 percent of spiritual Americans reported having been inspired or touched by listening to a piece of music in the past week. That's the power of Joni Mitchell.
Indeed, many of the activities associated with spirituality, such as creativity, appreciation of beauty, and time spent in nature are linked with increased happiness. As little as fifteen minutes outdoors can boost feelings of wellbeing, Time reports, and longer spans help restore our overtaxed iPhone-addicted prefrontal cortexes, leading to increased creativity. You needn't be a serious painter or novelist to reap the happiness benefits of creativity, the experts say. "It really has to do with open-mindedness," Dr. Carrie Barron, co-author of "The Creativity Cure," told Greatist.
What these spiritual experiences share is a sense of connection to something beyond ourselves, whether it's a beautiful sonata, sunset, or sonnet. And perhaps surprisingly, this is the same reason that sex increases our happiness. It's not just the climaxes but the sense of connection.
"[S]ex seems not only beneficial because of its physiological or hedonic effects," writes University of Toronto postdoc Anik Debrot and her colleagues, "but because it promotes a stronger and more positive connection with the partner."
Studies show that it is a sense of belonging that appeals to the spiritually and religiously observant, and Sanderson says its this feeling of community responsible for the happiness quotient among spiritual and religious people.
"Religion," Sanderson says, "is about helping other people and having others looking after you."
The happiest people have strong relationships—maybe it doesn't matter if that relationship is with God, your spouse, or your knitting group. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, relationships bring satisfaction, joy and meaning—more than money, fame, social class, IQ, or genes.
"The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health," said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation."
And you don't need to find that revelation in Revelations.