Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

The Miserable Spiritual Seeker

winding road.jpgIt turns out that in terms of happiness, the big divide in America is not between believers and non- beliefers, or Christians and non-Christians — but those who are certain and those who aren’t.
A recent study by Grand Valley State University found that ardent atheists were just as happy as ardent believers.


Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the “fence sitters” who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals [seekers]….Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.”

The author reported that atheists who proudly identified as atheists were particularly happy. This makes me think that happiness stems from a sense of belonging. Atheists who have a clear identity find happiness in that certainty. This reminds me of how similar Bill Maher seemed to the True Believers he mocked in the movie Religulous. There’s great joy in knowing who you are, what you believe, and who your enemy is.
I wonder, though, if part of the problem is that there’s a social stigma on uncertainty. Consider the implicit condescension in the author’s term for spiritual seekers, “fence sitters.” Instead of being cast as curious, truth-seekers on a winding spiritual road, the undecided are sometimes considered “lost” or weak. In some cases, straddlers may feel disloyal as they’re rebelling against some family tradition. And it’s much harder to find a collection of kindred-spirits (membership numbers have not risen for the National Association of People Who Can’t Quite Decide What Religion They Are).
Finally, for those wanting a connection to the divine, the inability to establish it can leave a great hole — like someone unsuccessfully seeking romance. You can feel like a failure.
What are your theories for why spiritual seekers might be less happy than ardent believers or atheists?

Comments read comments(6)
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Brian Westley

posted August 18, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd — Voltaire

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posted August 18, 2009 at 9:57 pm

a good theory, but i don’t think it has to do with social stigma. in many circles, there is a stigma against being certain (hope you appreciate my understatement here) — yet i imagine “seekers” who live in manhattan or cambridge or hollywood fit the general profile described in the study.
i think it’s something more about the psychology of doubt. most likely we are created to be believers…have a simple, happy life. we’ve probably outgrown the evolutionary capacity of our souls.

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posted August 19, 2009 at 3:46 am

This is the wrong way round, I think. It is not seeking that makes you unhappy. It is unhappiness that causes you to seek.

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posted August 20, 2009 at 3:13 pm

It may be both. Indeed unhappiness can lead to seeking, but not always. Doubt, inquiry and uncertainty are often frowned upon and/or seen as signs of weakness in religious communities. Thus there is little avenue for their honest expression or discussion. This is a significant stressor, even if people don’t recognize it as such.

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Karen Brown

posted August 21, 2009 at 12:57 am

Maybe it depends on what they mean by ‘fence sitters’. There can be a sort of certainty in uncertainty, if you think that there’s always going to be some questions. Maybe it isn’t the seekers so much as those in ‘transition’ that are unhappy. The ones losing their old certainty, not even necessarily having something new to back it up.
Nothing like doubting when you USED to be certain, to lose your social connections without necessarily having any new ones.

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posted August 25, 2009 at 7:59 am

After reading the survey results, I find two things very interesting. One is that, while the authors state that those with very little to no doubt in their belief system seemed to be more emotionally stable, at the same time they also tended to be suspicious of others and less agreeable. Also, those true believers that label themselves as atheist tended to be single males that have never committed to a relationship and never cohabited and have less social contacts outside of family.
Now, maybe it’s just me, but that does not sound like a well adjusted person. It is easy to feel personal satisfaction when you believe that you are always “RIGHT”, But if you can not interact or empathize with your fellows, does life satisfaction really equate to happiness?

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