Are People Who Pray Happier than Everyone Else?
How would you go about investigating the assertion that people who pray on a daily basis are happier than people who pray less often or don't pray at all? Any investigation of an association between prayer and happiness will be fraught with difficulty, no matter the method of investigation. Upon starting, some very difficult questions immediately confront us. What is happiness? How does one go about measuring it? What is prayer?
Happiness is not an easy thing to define, let alone quantify. Happiness is not an objective fact to which anyone can point. In the end, trying to measure the happiness of a person must rely on self-reports. I could probably correlate these self-reports with other data including income, genetic traits, or educational level, and come up with a profile of a happy person. When finished, I could then say that one's prayer life does or does not contribute to happiness. However, I have not managed to say what happiness is.
Prayer is also hard to define, simply because different religious traditions approach prayer in unique ways. Formal postures may or may not be required. Rote recitations may or may not be necessary. We might even question whether a person needs to address a deity in prayer. As an example of the nature of this problem, I say I pray daily in surveys. However, an observer would have a hard time confirming this, since most of my prayers are internal conversations with God. When alone, I do not assume any special postures and do not usually speak to God audibly. According to my sacred texts, this is perfectly acceptable.
An experimental approach to the question is appealing, at least at first glance. Scientists have linked chemicals called endorphins to states of euphoria. Theoretically, high endorphin levels suggest a state of happiness. If we can link prayer to happiness, then those who pray daily should have higher levels of endorphins than those who pray less often or not at all. I could take several groups of people and assign them randomly to pray with varying frequency or not at all. I would measure their endorphin levels throughout the period of experimentation.
The main advantage is that we have something we can objectively measure. We do not have to rely on self-reports of individuals who may exaggerate how often they pray or how happy they are. By controlling the subjects' living conditions, we eliminate other possible sources of greater happiness. Thus, we can answer the question definitively.
Or can we? If I am placed in a group who is not supposed to pray, how is anyone able to prevent me from cheating? I know of no way to control for cheating when it comes to internal prayer. Another hard-to-control consideration is the religious context of prayer. Could we really expect an atheist told to pray daily to be happier than a religious person? How would a Christian's happiness compare to an atheist when told to refrain from prayer? Trying to control these factors without losing the randomness of group assignment, thus invalidating the study, would be nearly impossible.
Even if the experiment were successful, and I definitively linked endorphin levels with frequency of prayer, I may not have proven that praying people are happier. We can expect drug users regularly supplied with their drug of choice to have higher endorphin levels. Does this make a drug addict happier than someone who does not use them? If both prayer and drugs produce similar levels of endorphins, can we exchange one for the other? Would this mean prayer is actually as destructive as drugs?
As a more descriptive approach, I doubt a phenomenological method of investigation is any better suited to answering the question. It does have some advantages over an experimental model. Though I would again be forced to rely on self-reporting, I could supplement the reports with direct observation. This means I can make observations about prayer in its natural state, i.e., as people practice it in their everyday lives. I would not have to ask people to do anything other than what they normally do. At a minimum, I could classify different types of prayer and possibly identify what is essential to all prayers whatever the tradition. Finally, I could make a much deeper and broader study than I could with mere measures of biochemistry.
Unfortunately, I still could not say whether people who pray are happier than those who pray less often or not at all. I could say a person seems happy or unhappy, but such judgments are based on my biases of how a happy person interacts with the world. I might say a person who always prays penitentially is unhappy, which may contradict the self-report. Who would be right? When I start comparing the experiences of people across religious traditions and cultures, this problem only gets exasperated. Can we really compare Hindu and Christian notions of happiness to say who is happier?
The question of whether those who pray are happier than those who pray less may be unanswerable. An experimental method could only approach the question obliquely. A phenomenological approach cannot definitively answer it. If asked to investigate the question, I am most likely to take the Nancy Reagan approach and just say no.