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Can Atheists Be Happy? And Other Answers from Scientific American MIND

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The May/June issue of Scientific American Mind makes its online debut today. As usual, it contains an array of delicacies to sate your curiosity about people. Here are three mouth-watering morsels of brain food from its pages.

Pretty young woman

Don't blame her. Images of youthful knockouts are not the root of body image problems. Courtesy of liber via Flickr.

Knowing Ourselves. How we see ourselves—physically, that is–can play a significant role in our lives. Our body image likely undergirds much of our social and athletic confidence, and partly through those factors, our mood. Females, more than males, often struggle with their body image at some point in their lives, probably because they are judged by their appearance more than males are. For most, the trouble amounts to little more than a vexing, but temporary delusion such as, “I look fat in this dress.” But for the unfortunate few, a negative, and hugely distorted, body image produces persistent trouble, resulting in a disorder such as anorexia. Either way, getting at the root of such feelings of physical inadequacy is of no minor significance.

I have always thought that body image issues stemmed from what we see. We look in the mirror and compare ourselves to the beautiful woman we saw on TV, in the magazine, walking down the street—or wherever—and we are sorely disappointed. But in this issue of the magazine, I learned that body image isn’t all, or even mostly, determined by that visual comparison (see “Inside the Wrong Body,” by Carrie Arnold). It is, instead, hugely influenced by how we feel inside. That is, a little known sense called interoception, awareness of the internal state of one’s body, anchors our impression of what we look like.

Interoception enables us to read our own emotions and to know when we are hungry, thirsty, hot, cold or in pain. People vary on how well this sense works for them. Those who suffer from eating disorders and serious body image issues usually have major deficits in interoception. Research shows that such people are more susceptible to media images of thin women and more easily swayed by others’ opinions. If your interoception is good, then you are relatively immune to such influences and less likely to think you are fat when you are really thin—or vice versa. Want to know how well your internal sense operates? Read the article for a do-it-yourself test.

Ozzy Osbourne

Subliminal songs? Ozzy Osbourne was accused of imbedding backmasked secret tracks in his music that influenced children. Courtesy of Focka via Flickr.

Subliminal Silliness. When I was a kid, my pals told me that commercials contained hidden subliminal messages designed to suck us into buying things we don’t really want. I also remember hearing that records from reportedly nefarious rock musicians, when played backwards, issued spoken messages that could provoke people to behave badly, again working through the unconscious mind. It all sounded very fishy to me, and I never lost sleep over it—suspicious as I am of most claims and not the sort who responds to suggestions to engage in bad behavior anyway. Still, it wasn’t voodoo, but psychology, and despite the fact that both of my parents were research psychologists, I don’t remember ever learning whether these assertions had any validity.

As an article in this issue tells us, these particular examples of subliminal influence are mythical (see “The Subtle Power of Hidden Messages,” by Wolfgang Stroebe). It is possible to flash words or phrases onto a screen too briefly to be consciously processed, and audio engineers can record utterances backward onto a track, a technique known as backmasking. But no visual or aural messages transmitted beneath our awareness can change our preferences or make us do things we otherwise would be loathe to attempt or pursue.

That said, under certain circumstances, subliminal messages can subtly sway us. But we have to be ready for them. That is, if we are already thinking or feeling something that relates to the message, that phrase or sentence can serve as a reminder of something we like, making us more likely to choose that item over something else. In other cases, we might subconsciously associate a stimulus—such as the type of background music in a store—with high- or low-brow taste, and this can influence the amount of money we spend. But such cues don’t make us do anything radically different from what we intend or want to do.

The effect of such subliminal signals seems to me to be a lot like other happenstance influences on our behavior. I work in an open office so lots of people walk by my desk. I rarely pay attention to them, but I do sometimes vaguely register their presence. Most of the time, the passerby has no affect on my behavior. But occasionally, I notice someone who reminds me of a task that I have forgotten to do. Maybe I am working with that person, or he or she is part of a meeting in which whatever I was supposed to accomplish would be discussed. In such cases, I might stop what I am doing and turn to the forgotten task. But since that degree of influence doesn’t seem too sinister to me, I am going to continue to find concerns more worthy of sleep loss.


Communal benefits. Religion can bolster well-being, in part because going to church provides a sense of community. Courtesy of tbower via Flickr.

Can Atheists Be Happy? Being religious confers big benefits. Time and again, studies have shown that people who have a religious faith are more likely to be healthy and happy than those who lack one. Religious people may even live longer. Go to church and you could outlive your atheist friends by a good seven years, as we report in this issue (see “Healthy Skepticism,” by Sandra Upson). Yet doctors don’t counsel patients to take up Christianity, say, as a way of beating back mental or physical distress. Even if such advice were socially acceptable, it wouldn’t work. Most people can’t just go out and find religion if the idea hadn’t resonated with them before. But finding out the secret ingredients behind religion’s powerful effects might reveal something that could be prescribed.

One clue: religion makes the biggest difference for well-being in places where life is hard, suggesting the belief system, or the camaraderie that accompanies it, provides support when times are tough. But if you are affluent, and things are going well, you may be perfectly happy without this psychological safety net, studies show. Being religious also seems to be most beneficial if you live among mostly religious people, indicating it is way of fitting in socially. In countries where few people believe, the psychological benefits of faith disappear.

So if you are nonbeliever, surround yourself with like-minded people, and work on achieving your goals in other parts of your life (see “The Secrets of Self Improvement,” by Marina Krakovsky, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2012). Having close friends and other forms of psychological support can also boost your well-being. Your social and professional successes will then help you weather life’s ups and downs just as religion does. If you live in the U.S., these accomplishments might even help you withstand the most unrelenting downside of being nonreligious: the feeling of not fitting in.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Tue Sorensen 6:15 pm 04/12/2012

    No offense, but a question (much more a headline) like “Can atheists be happy?” really bugs me. It is already presuming that it would be extremely strange, weird and improbable if any atheists were happy. Speaking as an atheist; as a member of an enormously growing worldwide movement made up of people who have no need for religion, I feel the scientifically reasonable presumption ought to be in our favor. The less influence religion gets in social matters, the more human civilization have focused on human rights, freedom of speech and, indeed, democracy. To say nothing of science! People who do not have emotional issues will tend toward reason and rationalism. Religion makes no rational sense; people only have it for emotional reasons – and eventually those issues will be resolved, mainly through the influence of science, and then religion will fade away. All these books about how religion is somehow hardwired into us for evolutionary reasons are hogwash. Religion is an authority figure that we cling to until we mature as a species and become our own rational authority figures. It’s a phase we’re going through on our journey through cultural evolution.

    Such is my opinion, anyway.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 6:16 pm 04/12/2012

    Pop psychology at it’s sillyest

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  3. 3. whocares 6:53 pm 04/12/2012

    Religion is the source of all evil, psychosis, guilt and the misery of humanity and the world. The day I dumped it and got rid of all the indoctrination I had from my family, education and society it was the day I freed myself from the source of depression and all misconceptions you feed people with. Bottom line there is no saviour but yourself and the day you come in term with this, accept it and accept the responsibilities that comes along with it you are free and in bliss to believe ultimately in yourself and no one else and become your own God! Atheist is a great thing but not everyone can take that path, only few brave hearts can!

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  4. 4. obscurantist 8:27 pm 04/12/2012

    The title is silly, and the “facts” adduced to advance the proposition that religion makes people happier are not exactly compelling. For many people, religion oppresses them with feelings of sin, guilt and fear about the afterlife. Even on the outside, many religious people are sour, censorious and grim-looking. While religion may increase one’s sense of community, at the same time it can increase secrecy and fear of being expelled from the community when one fails to live within its norms or has inner doubts about its teachings. And, of course, the sense of community is usually accompanied by a standoffishness with respect to outsiders, sometimes shading into prejudice, hostility, even hatred.

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  5. 5. payitfwd 8:30 pm 04/12/2012

    I would rather be more stressed and live a shorter life as long as it means having more clarity in regards to how the world works. I would hate to be in an insular little bubble and not worry as much because “God has a plan”.

    Sure, it would be nice fantasizing about living all eternity in some utopia so that whatever happens down here on Earth has very little meaning. However, that is a delusional way of thinking and it greatly diminishes how special this life is.

    If realizing that makes me “unhappy”… than so be it! :-)

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  6. 6. Bops 8:39 pm 04/12/2012

    The whole article was silly. The truth is that religious people are more likely to kill other people or commit suicide. Many people turn to faith in hopes of healing mental illness. The whole point of going to church is for healing or to save a failed lifestyle.

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  7. 7. FutureQ 8:46 pm 04/12/2012

    When I rationally chucked religion in the dust bin I felt the most profound sense of peace and calm come over me as though a crushing weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Gone was all the second guessing, had I chosen the right faith?, I looked at a girl and naturally felt lust–was I damned for that thought I could not begin to stop?. The moment you think, ‘don’t think that naughty thought’–too late you just did!

    These are but a tiny sample of the what I call religious tyranny of doubt. It stems from the fact that there are so damn many, well over 30,000 religions and all claiming they are the only true path. Then within them there are logical inconsistencies and guilt landmines that only lead to pschological angst, self doubt and sometimes peer cruelty.

    As to so called benefits of having religious faith that supposedly increase health and longevity, well I happen to personally know this is not so. I am in an extreme minority of people, spinal cord injured wherein the condition alone brings with it many insults to lower survival rates but add to that my having the worst case in the world of a rare bone disease and my personal survival chances are greatly diminished.

    However, having no supernatural faith but instead real faith in humanity and science and technology I have beaten so many odds by surviving as long as I have with so many illnesses that to enumerate them simply wouldn’t be believed possible. Without historical records to back up my claim people would surely say I was exagerating.

    I am the atheist equivelant of the biblical Job but I endure by taking firm grasp of my own medical care and becoming knowledgeable about my condition and ailments. I do not just shut my eyes and pray all will be done for me by some phantom entity.

    The sooner we all grow up and finally shed our psyche crutches the sooner we will really shine as a species.

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  8. 8. Bops 9:05 pm 04/12/2012

    The opposite is true, less and less people even go to church, and most of the people that do go…don’t believe all the “Hoopla” anymore. Proof…what do most people do for holidays…big churches are being torn down and replaced by many smaller different types of faiths.

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  9. 9. MarkB4 9:11 pm 04/12/2012

    Written by a religious practitioner? Or just a tease? :)

    Taking the title alone : Can Atheists be Happy? As if they are a minority?

    Better to ask : If religion is so good for you why is the world such a cruel and violent place? Bearing in mind it is people who make up the world. Especially the so-called religious practitioners.

    Or maybe it’s just great fun dodging hell – for a christian, or pining after those seventeen virgins I’ve been promised – if I was a muslim, for instance. Crusade and Jihad, though cruelly misinterpreted, must be real exciting for the war mongering prayers. No need to go into the psychological mess religion is and fosters.

    The trouble with believers, of any persuasion, is they believe, usually anything they are told by their authority.

    God save us from believers! :)

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  10. 10. zpbrown 9:58 pm 04/12/2012

    Religion at its best is not dogmatic. The dogma is a failed attempt to explain religions benefits. Dogma is a frail attempt to add reason to what people experience in religion.
    Religion itself is a mental way of relating an isolated self into a social framework so that the self involves the neighbor and society. Religion grows out of an intuition that the single isolated person is not fulfilled except by a world of relations with a complex society. This society is of people, other animals and minerals and the myriad systems they compose. We are embedded physically and emotionally in these system components. Through that immersion we are enriched.

    The religious life is built on aspects of nature that we least understand, but which philosophers have always addressed. The similarity of religious beliefs across the breadth of religions is testimony to a common idea behind most of them. In all religions that I know about the golden rule is prime. We intuit that as we do to others we do to self. That logic can only come from an understanding that we are emotionally and – to some extent physically – linked to others. The full system of links compose a whole of which we are a part. This connection is,to some extent the source of our physical and mental life. We therefore benefit from others doing well.

    The dogma derives from small minds offering up primitive explanation for why our intuition would be correct. The small minds get hung up on inexplicable details of cause and effect, as well as origins, yet many religious people dwell on the connections between people. Religions are a complex mix of wisdom and smallness. Yet despite their huge short comings, in many ways they are the only grown up game in town that place the individual in an important context whereby both self and neighbor are central to one’s well being.

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  11. 11. scientific earthling 2:51 am 04/13/2012

    zpbrown you are wrong. Religion, all religion is evil. It is a man made tool of enslavement. Religion treats women like slaves, religious women tend to love this treatment. In an extremely overpopulated world religion demands its membership out-breed other groupings so in a democratic society the most populous religion rules. Look at the impact of religion in the upcoming US elections.

    We have seen the so-called budding democracies in the middle east, all of them, turning into fanatical religious states. Not a part of the religious majority, you have no place in those societies. We shall now have to make room for all the displaced groups from Egypt, Syria, Libya and the rest that follow, as we have done for those from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Burma etc. Sadly the displaced groups do not learn from their experiences, they come as refugees to our secular nations and then demand we tolerate and accept their practices, though them may be abhorrent to us, they even demand our women dress modestly so as not to offend them. If we agree to impose laws to cater to their intolerance, it wont be long before every women in our society is forced into a burkha.

    In the UK the authorities have for decades turned a blind eye to child marriages and honor killings, on the grounds: It was part of their culture and who were we to decide which culture was better. Today as these groups have become a larger proportion of the whole they believe they are unstoppable and dream of applying sharia law nationwide.

    Think Christian religions are better, read history.

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  12. 12. Sacrieur 5:10 am 04/13/2012

    7 years is worth the truth.

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  13. 13. elaadt 6:38 am 04/13/2012

    The title is misleading. It’s not about atheists happiness or unhapiness (who said we’re not happy?). As I see it the passage talks about community being a source of happiness and affecting longevity. Religious communities are just one topic people gather around. You could just as well talk about the amount of happiness football fans experience as a community (another form of religion IMO). Or gamers, blogers, commenters etc. on the internet.

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  14. 14. geojellyroll 8:39 am 04/13/2012

    These figures are cooked by religious people who worship the dead-guy-on-a-stick.

    hint…the most religious block in the USA are Blacks and they have a shorter life span than whites. Ethnic Jews have the highest rate of Atheism and among the highest longevity.

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  15. 15. sarez 1:54 pm 04/13/2012

    The title of this article is an obvious “teaser” to get us to click on it. Look at all the people who did so! Signed, an athiest in San Diego (not exactly happy, but not toally miserable either–a state not connected to my athiesm, I “believe”!

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  16. 16. jgrosay 3:57 pm 04/13/2012

    Only atheists know if they are happy or not, the best approach for that kind of questions is opening a good survey. Salut +

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  17. 17. SmArtE 4:57 pm 04/13/2012

    Only recently have I heard the statement about Athiests being unhappy. Sorry, but being an Athiest means, “Being Happy” :P

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  18. 18. BeFreeThinker 9:01 pm 04/13/2012

    I assumed by the name of the site that this story must have empirical evidence to substantiate such an absurd claim. One of the aspects that I appreciate most about being an atheist is the understand of truths and discerning objectivity over subjective rhetoric. Knowing that the US is mostly Christian (approx 70%) and holds the world record largest user of controlled drugs to combat depression, these claims do not seem to have a credible leg to stand on. If this study is based on interviews, it would explain a great deal. Invariably, I find the need to hold strong to a fictious supernatural presence attributed to personal experience without any tangible or hard evidence, as another condition attributed to the placebo effect. Psyching the brain to have an emotional and physical reaction does not provide evidence of the existence of an omniscient supernatural arbiter. Delusion Disorder

    Diagnostic criteria for 297.1 Delusional Disorder. Grandiose Type: delusions of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationship to a deity or famous person  Reprinted with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Copyright 2000 American Psychiatric Association

    Sounds like happiness to me…

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  19. 19. MrDrT 10:22 pm 04/13/2012

    @Tue S…Man you seem unhappy with this article.

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  20. 20. MrDrT 10:23 pm 04/13/2012

    @ WHocares . . . seems important to you that no one is religious. Wonder why that would be?

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  21. 21. tudza 9:09 am 04/14/2012

    Other suggested titles:

    Can Cubs fans be happy?

    Can Christians be sad?

    Can atheists be happy? Not a chance in hell.

    Do fish need bicycles?

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  22. 22. Ingrid Wickelgren in reply to Ingrid Wickelgren 12:52 pm 04/16/2012

    Hi all:

    Yes, title is a teaser. Thanks to all of you for your comments. Religion and atheism seem to spark a lot of controversy. I thought it was interesting that there is nothing truly unique about religion that explains the results relating faith to well being. The article in Scientific American Mind explains more! Best to all.

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  23. 23. bucketofsquid 3:08 pm 04/25/2012

    So apparently I’m the only person commenting here that didn’t skip over the first two sections of the article and actually bothered to read the whole thing.

    Re:section 1 – For years I’ve been told that I tend to be emotionally disconnected in that I don’t seem to know what my own emotional state is. I used to forget to eat quite often. After counseling to learn to recognize my own feelings I find that I’m much more likely to realize when I’m hungry or tired too. Unfortunately this is making me gain about 5 pounds a year. My wife says I seem happier and easier to live with though.

    Re: section 2 – In the days of cassettes I used to open the cases and flip the tapes over so they would play backwards. I listened to them for hours. Oddly enough I never set out on a killing spree and I actually became a Christian.

    Re:section 3 – In one of our Sunday School classes on doctrine a church leader was in town and he pointed out that the only reason we gathered together on Sundays was that we need the social reinforcement that we aren’t alone in our beliefs. In other words we need to be part of a tightly knit community.

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