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.

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