Do you believe in the existence of Heaven or Hell? Raised in the AME faith, I was taught that Heaven & Hell are real after-life destinations, but exposure to various religions/beliefs and experiences in my lifetime have expanded my outlook on such matters. Perhaps that’s why RawStory’s coverage of this new study piqued my interest. Their recent article explores the findings of the of the University of Oregon’s Azim F. Shariff And Lara B. Aknin that suggest a belief in a punitive afterlife could be linked to lower well-being.

The fervent preaching of fire and brimstone never sat too well with me. Far from the rhetoric used in the church of my youth, memories of such sermons as a guest of other churches still leave me with sense of unease and hopelessness.

Shariff & Aknin’s 3-part study claims that “beliefs in Heaven and Hell are related, [and] are associated with different personality characteristics and social phenomena.” Their aim was to measure the belief in Heaven and Hell and its impact on subjective well-being. As part of their findings they state that “a belief in Heaven is consistently associated with greater happiness and life satisfaction while a belief in Hell is associated with lower happiness and life satisfaction”, concluding that the key differences are caused by the negative emotional impact of a belief in Hell.

RawStory reports that the researchers first analyzed data from the Gallup World Poll, World Values Survey, and European Values Survey to compare the “differences in subjective well-being between 63 countries against national rates of Heaven and Hell beliefs.” The survey included info from hundreds of thousands of individuals from various stations in life. Shariff and Aknin found that both the belief in Heaven and the belief in Hell were significant, but deviating, indicators of happiness at the national level. However, their study revealed that countries with higher rates of “happiness” were those where a belief in Heaven was embraced more than that of devil’s domain.

The second study involved the use of the World Values Survey and European Values Survey to test this relationship at the individual level, says RawStory.  “After controlling for variables like age, income, education level, religious attendance, and sex, the two researchers again found that belief in Hell was associated with unhappiness while belief in Heaven was associated with happiness.”

“Hell beliefs were associated with lower well-being at the national level and individual level, whereas Heaven beliefs were associated with higher well-being. Furthermore, an experiment using an online sample of Americans shows consistent findings; priming participants with Hell leads to lower levels of positive emotion and higher levels of negative emotion… While we suggest that a belief in Hell leads to lower levels of well-being, these data cannot rule out the possibility that individuals with low levels of well-being are more likely to adopt the belief in Hell or that some third variable is responsible for this pattern,” Shariff and Aknin assert.

Referring to a portion of the study where participants were asked to write about the two, the researchers claim, “Religious believers and non-believers both showed more emotional negativity when writing about Hell.. It is notable that reflecting on Hell negatively affected well-being, regardless of whether the participant identified as a religious believer.”

Interestingly, the findings led Shariff and Aknin to indicate that a belief in Hell serves a vital social purpose: To keep folk’s behavior in check. “Thus, the belief in Hell, and religious malevolence more generally, may contribute to the encouragement of rule following, through the deterrence value of supernatural punishment,” they wrote, “but may do so at the cost of well-being. This creates an intriguing trade-off between the interests of the group, which benefit from the ethical behavior of the group’s members, and the interest of the individual, who shoulders the emotional costs of a society that follows norms out of fear.”

This rare study involved a wide variety of methods to uncover the outcome which may seem obvious – or oversimplified – depending on one’s viewpoint: Folks preoccupied with Hell (misery) are more distressed than those who are consumed with thoughts associated with Heaven (love). Their findings conclude that certain “religious concepts may be associated with greater well-being, the belief in Hell appears not to be one of them.”

If this resonates, what’s your say on the matter?

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