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Why religion breeds happiness: Friends
December 7th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

Why religion breeds happiness: Friends

As important as your religious beliefs may be to you, they don't necessarily make you happier, a new study in the American Sociological Review finds. What does make you more satisfied with your life, the study finds, is having friends at your congregation and a strong religious identity.

"Those are the people who give you the sense of belonging," said lead study author Chaeyoon Lim, of the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Lim conducted the study with Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone" and "American Grace."

Many other studies have argued that the happiness gleaned from being religious is about spirituality and theology - for example, your belief in a higher power and your engagement in the rituals of your tradition. But in this study, factors such as prayer, holding religious services at home, and strength of faith do not appear to be related to life satisfaction.

Lim and Putnam looked at a nationally representative sample of almost 2,000 people in the United States. The majority of the participants in the study were Protestant and Catholic; Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians were a smaller portion.

They conducted interviews with the same participants twice: Once in 2006 and once in 2007. Those who gained friends in their congregations during the course of the year also reported a greater sense of life satisfaction. This was also true for those who said they were attending their place of worship more in 2007.

But people who go to a place of worship and have few close friends there are not any happier than people who never go to services, the study authors found.

Religious identity is also important, Lim said. People who say that religion is a very important part of self identity tend to be happier. And that also goes back to the friendship issue: It’s not simply the presence of friendship, but also the fact that you share this sense of religious identity with this particular social network, that makes you more satisfied with life, Lim said.

Friendship in congregation also appears to make people volunteer more, even outside of the religious setting, and donate more often to both religious and nonreligious causes, Lim and Putnam found.

Still, it is worth examining in the future why this study did not find the same link between happiness and spirituality that others did, the authors say. This may have to do with how different aspects of religion are measured. For example, those who reported that they "feel God's love" seemed to have more life satisfaction than those who did not, but this did not apply for similar questions about belief in God. Also, it is impossible to draw conclusions about whether "feeling God's love" causes happiness or vice versa.

Could other networks of people have the same effect on happiness? The authors say that if this is possible, it's hard to think of a non-religious context with a similar strength of identity, intensity of participation in ritual, and great scale and scope of the people in it.


soundoff (388 Responses)
  1. Ian

    I am a very happy atheist. Religion? You don't need religion to make friends, have morals or live a good life. I don't go to church, believe in a god and I have many friends and am quite happy. Then again I am also grounded in the reality of life and the connection of all living things.

    December 7, 2010 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      Me too, Ian. I know these simple facts won't sway anyone away from the teachings that were pounded into them by their parents/clergy....but it sure is fun to make them look foolish!

      December 7, 2010 at 17:13 | Report abuse |
    • GrammarGnatsie

      It's good to have many friends and be happy.

      Be careful, Tom. Different strokes for different folks. No need to (give reason to) start a classic arguement that cannot end.

      Actually, it ends when/if God shows himself to someone. However, that's quite speculative, and different people see it in different ways, if at all. Or so I imagine. So actually, Atheists can't win and the religious cannot win by any means short of God making an appearance at the Super Bowl. Still, the topic is a pointless arguement that can never be debated with calm fact.

      December 7, 2010 at 18:35 | Report abuse |
  2. billp

    "I'm for whatever gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniels." – Frank Sinatra

    December 7, 2010 at 17:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      .... and John Lennon

      December 7, 2010 at 18:33 | Report abuse |
  3. Craig D, Seattle WA

    Ignorance is bliss,apparently. Accepting full responsibility for one's life in 'real' world and facing up to the finality of death may be a bit more pestiferous and nerve-wracking than gazing at life–and a supposed 'after life'–through the rosy-lens of supernaturalism offered up by religion. Santa Claus brings happiness too to millions of people, but grown-ups know better.

    December 7, 2010 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Goddog

    http://courses.science.fau.edu/~rjordan/phy1931/GALILEO/galileo.htm

    Got to go. Read up. Namaste.

    December 7, 2010 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. txter

    The Spirit of God surpasses all understanding and enters people into a peace and joy that only the fellow enlightened can understand. Those in darkness will never experience true joy and peace.

    December 7, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • GrammarGnatsie

      Then stop trying to convert us.

      (Sorry, made me laugh too much to keep to myself. Do what you do, I'm just joking around.)

      December 7, 2010 at 18:29 | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Those that believe there's a supreme being are 100% wrong. See how easy that is!

      December 7, 2010 at 18:30 | Report abuse |
  6. Reality

    Religion breeds happiness??

    You must be kidding!!!

    Koranic-driven terror and horror via a partial count

    1a) 179 killed in Mumbai/Bombay, 290 injured

    1b) Assassination of Benazir Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh

    2) 9/11, 3000 mostly US citizens, 1000’s injured

    3) The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,481 and 924 died in non-combat98,691 – 107,707
    Iraqi civilians killed as of 11/9/2010, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and
    defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf

    4) Kenya- In Nairobi, about 212 people were killed and an estimated 4000 injured; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85.[2]

    5) Bali-in 2002-killing 202 people, 164 of whom were foreign nationals, and 38 Indonesian citizens. A further 209 people were injured.

    6) Bali in 2005- Twenty people were killed, and 129 people were injured by three bombers who killed themselves in the attacks.

    7) Spain in 2004- killing 191 people and wounding 2,050.

    8. UK in 2005- The bombings killed 52 commuters and the four radical Islamic suicide bombers, injured 700.

    9) The execution of an eloping couple in Afghanistan on 04/15/2009 by the Taliban.

    10) – Afghanistan: US troops 1,116 killed in action, 902 killed in non-combat situations as of 08/10/2010. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror

    11) The killing of 13 citizen soldiers at Ft. Hood by a follower of the koran.

    12) 38 Russian citizens killed on March 29, 2010 by Muslim women suicide bombers.

    13) The May 28, 2010 attack on a Islamic religious minority in Pakistan, which have left 98 dead,

    14) Lockerbie is known internationally as the site where, on 21 December 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 crashed as a result of a terrorist bomb. In the United Kingdom the event is referred to as the Lockerbie disaster, the Lockerbie bombing, or simply Lockerbie. Eleven townspeople were killed in Sherwood Crescent, where the plane's wings and fuel tanks plummeted in a fiery explosion, destroying several houses and leaving a huge crater, with debris causing damage to a number of buildings nearby. The 270 fatalities (259 on the plane, 11 in Lockerbie) were citizens of 21 nations.

    15) Followed by the daily suicide and/or roadside and/or mosque bombings every day in the terror world of Islam.

    16) Bombs sent from Yemen by followers of the koran which fortunately were discovered before the bombs were detonated.

    17) The killing of 58 Christians in a Catholic church in one of the latest acts of horror and terror in Iraq.

    December 7, 2010 at 17:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • brandon s

      ^ ^ what this person said

      December 7, 2010 at 18:26 | Report abuse |
  7. GrammarGnatsie

    I think we would all be happier if we heavily associated with only people who agreed with us.

    This isn't about religion, it's about the human desire to be correct; "You agree with me! So I'm right!" You might as well ask a Republican if he is happier around only Republicans or only Democrats. Go ask Kanye West if he would be happier around Beyonce or Taylor Swift. It's basic psychology, so I'm glad the article wasn't pushed as a scientific breakthrough.

    December 7, 2010 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Goddog

    Keith... Sorry, last word. You said"...and who is saying that the Genesis account is to be taken literally?". Exactly my point. So who's to say what parts are real?

    December 7, 2010 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Blessed Geek

    If most of the Universe was created/banged-up within the first ten minutes of time, seven days is actually a very very very long time in comparison.

    December 7, 2010 at 19:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Sabu Domberstein

    Religion is a place to make business contacts, meet people in a new town but it has quirks since it attract phonies with similar interests. Religions are based on fairy tales. Fairy tales like Santa Claus stories I suppose have their place in driving capitalism and cheer for children. All religions have been designed to motivate people to a cause. Makes people believe in something like the pet rock principle and is non scientific and not based on facts.

    December 7, 2010 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kate

    Hmm Chris. Time to take your evidence to the newspapers. I think they missed that important find of yours.

    But evidence abounds – you might want to repeat your 10th grade science classes if you can't see it.

    December 7, 2010 at 19:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. mccalliganpayton

    I couldn't agree more. Having a sense of belonging leads to happiness and the creation of better, healthier relationships in Christian life.

    December 7, 2010 at 23:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Kyle bondservant of Christ

    God is the one who has given me joy peace happiness and every good thing :D attending church (willingly and not feeling obligated) is a plus. Being able to hear and read the LIVING word of God is awesome and having fellowship with my brothers and sisters is a plus. Its when you ALONE that God works in your life. The proof of Gods existance is everything you see with your eyes that AREN'T man made. How come humans are the only thing given free will to make good or bad choices? In the animal world its survival of the fittest how is it not the same way with humans? How is it that out of the billions of galaxies there is not ONE messily planet that can sustain life? Explain the complex organs and tissue and bone and joints were made this way? There is no logical way we have always existed through time hahaha there IS a creator. Do cars make themselves? No they have a creator just like we have a creator GOD. People are just selfish and want to do there own thing. I have no problem with that. It makes me sad but I can't give them the desire to seek God only they can. Just like I can want you to be successful but it doesn't me your going to want to be. You are the one who needs to have that desire. GOD is great and I love him more than any temporary material thing or a friend. God is my friend he speaks to me through his word. I can pray for him to help me understand a problem I'm having I open my bible then BOOM!! Scripture perfectly mtches up with what I'm asking for. Hahaha every single time. Ask and you shall receive. Doesn't mean say dear lord bless me with a Ferrari bam then your driving one to work the next day. If you ask for wisdom it will be given to you if you ask for forgiveness its given to you (his mercy is renewed daily) if you ask for understanding he will give it to you without reproach. Not like bless me with a thousand bucks or bless me with some sweet shoes a nice house and ten girlfriends.... Those are all selfish things. You will never get them. But through obedience God WILL bless you. Its his promise (for heaven will poor out such a blessing that there won't be room enough to contain it) hahaha that's awesome all in all anyone can do what they want that's why its called FREE WILL. I'm not perfect and no one will ever be only god is (for all haved sinned and fall short of the glory of god) I just hope and pray that everyone be blessed. I love you all. Open up a bible and pray for God to reveal himself to you and he will without reproach. He love is all.

    December 8, 2010 at 05:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kate

      Soo, why does your god not tell everyone the same thing when they are alone? Nobody comes up with the same religion all by themselves.

      You would think you all would notice big important clues like that.

      December 8, 2010 at 12:07 | Report abuse |
  14. Janet

    Jesus Said:
    1. I am the way..the Truth and the LIfe...
    2. THe Peace I give is NOT the peace the world gives (see the United Nations as a perfect example)
    3. Jesus is the returning SON OF GOD and GOD (beyond human understanding)
    4. You make him Lord of your life and you do not worry about this sinful world of race..hate...war...money(he takes care of his own)
    5. He gives eternal life to those who surrend to him on his return

    Humble yourselves (hard for us in USA and Europe)and he will come to you

    December 8, 2010 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Paul

    A few points. These threads would be far more productive if they were approached as a dialectic rather than a debate. ( I speak to both the Christians and the Athiests and by the way Atheism is a religion too) We all need to understand each other by looking at their beliefs from the others world view or paradigm. There are lots of distortions and abuses of all ideologies including Atheism and it does no good to paint all with broad dismissive strokes or to point to distortions and excesses as the fundamental truth of an ideology. That's just ignorant and arrogant. So you know where I am coming from, I am an Orthodox Christian, This is a whole other topic but properly understood Christ is the end of religion.

    Someone posted that the Muslims were the center of science. Actually I think you are probably talking about the Persians and before them the Babylonians. Intellectual pursuits kind of declined in that part of the world after Mohamed enlightened them. It started with the destruction of the Alexandrian Library the greatest single compendium of knowledge in the ancient world.

    Historical Christianity always considered the pursuit of scientific knowledge and truth to be very important. It also considered knowledge pursued and obtained by the faculty of the heart (Gk nous) to be a separate endeavor. I can't get into the whole issue here but what can truly be known about God cannot be attained by thinking about Him it has to be first revealed and then the intellect can work on it. History is replete with instances of those who would try and think up something without first having experienced it.

    In the 12th century a Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas articulated that the intellect was the highest faculty of man and was the sole means of communion with God. This was a pivotal paradigm shift that took place in the west and set the tone for all subsequent Western pursuits of knowledge, both scientific and theological. It also changed Western Christianity substantially. I for one don't accept Aquinas' axiom. Any intellectual should at least read the debate that ensued between Gregory Palamas Bp. of Thessolonica and Barlaam (disciple of Thomas Aquinas) to inform themselves about how the drastic change in the way we think esp. here in the west occurred.

    Having said all that and having experienced everything from fundamental Christianity to Atheism and now Eastern Christianity I would have to say that a)what the survey discovered is real, b)you won't find it in every church c)It isn't just happiness or contentment or a sense of community and comradery (ie. military)that they are looking at but rather those are just symptoms of a deeper connection and oneness that is not found elsewhere. The Greek expression for this that was used to express it in the Bible, koinonia, does not have an equivalent English concept.

    December 11, 2010 at 12:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jloome

      Very learned, very impressive. Also spectacularly wrong.

      You've ignored the bio-chemical similarity between faiths and the fact that any of them can produce religious bliss or unitary being experiences.

      In fact, you can get the same group satisfaction from transcendental meditation, which also uses repeated structures, sounds, phraseology and ceremony to cause religious fervour, due to a partial disconnection of the posterior parietal lobe.

      There is no right religion. There are lots of right things about group behaviour, and religion often encourages them. But in and of itself, they're all logically wrong, as they're all mechanisms to achieve the same ends, regardless of the society in which they exist.

      December 13, 2010 at 17:13 | Report abuse |
  16. branch15

    Paul – You lost me after the word "dialectic". Who uses that word? I'm sure you are a nice person, but your paragraph started looking like blah, blah, blah. Nothing better than an open-minded debate.

    December 15, 2010 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. amal from kuwait

    i think having friends in the mosque is important and gives you a sense of wholness but the most important thing is what you realy believe deep down in your heart believing in the existence of one true god (allah) send you a feeling of accepting for what you are facing in life because you know the source of it god is peace ,happiness and love

    December 28, 2010 at 01:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. mike

    "Those are the people who give you the sense of belonging," bingo...I remember when I was young my mom was randomly like "We all need to go to church!" ..present day from what comes out of her mouth she most certainly doesn't believe (at least in their definition of god) whatsoever.....almost mocking at times. yet they goto church every Sunday, my sister is involved in the church, mother takes part in church activities, etc. I always say to them "Don't you hear the stuff that comes out of your mouth? You have to realize this is bs" ...and they just give me some cryptic smile. They know why they goto church, it gives them a sense that they belong to something. My mom also knows damn well if she actually truly admitted her beliefs she'd be all out of friends (shoulda seen the way one of her friends looked at me when I recited bible quotes during a xmas party...she obviously never read it...but they looked at me like I was an horrible human being...because if they weren't TAUGHT about it, it isn't in the bible....digressing...) and so would my sister (catholic school)...it's, well, a cult.

    March 16, 2011 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
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