Why Are Religious People Happier?

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Forging close bonds with people over mutually shared and meaningful interests might boost quality of life for anyone.

THE GIST

- Close friendships explain why religious people tend to report more life satisfaction than others.

- People who go to their places of worship often tend to be happier than those who go less frequently.

- Sharing any kind of bond over meaningful beliefs would probably also help boost well-being.

Religious people tend to report more life satisfaction, and a new study explains why.

It's not their spirituality, belief in heaven, or even the ritual act of praying or going to a house of worship that leads the pious to happiness. Rather, the study found, it's the close friends people gain through their religions that makes a difference.

The findings suggest that forging close bonds with people over mutually shared and meaningful interests might boost quality of life for anyone, religious or not. But there's something about being part of a congregation in particular that seems to build a sense of community and lead to fulfillment for many people.

"My co-author and I have found that religious people tend to volunteer more, care more about their community and do more good in their neighborhoods," said Chaeyoon Lim, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "All of that can be explained by friendships in the congregation that seem to make people not only happier, but also nicer people and better citizens."

Plenty of studies have established a link between religion and well-being, but the relationship poses a chicken-and-egg kind of problem. Does going to church really make people happier? Or do happier people tend to go to church?

To decipher some of the details, Lim and colleague Robert Putnam of Harvard University used data from a survey that interviewed a representative sample of more than 3,000 Americans in 2006 and many of the same group again in 2007. The survey asked participants tons of questions about themselves, including dozens about the role that religion plays in their daily lives.

Results showed that frequency of attendance to religious services mattered more than anything besides health in determining how satisfied people were with their lives, the researchers report today in the journal American Sociological Review. The more often people went to services, the happier they reported being -- up to about weekly, at which point wellbeing ratings reached a plateau.

Twenty-eight percent of people who go to services weekly will say they are extremely satisfied with their lives, the study predicted, compared with less than 20 percent of people who never go to a place of worship. That's the same difference as between people who say they are in "very good" health compared to those in "good" health, and between people with a family income of $100,000 compared to those with an income of $10,000.

Next, the researchers looked at a number of possible reasons that might explain why religious attendance would make such a big difference in people's happiness ratings. They found that the number of close friends people had in their congregation explained the entire relationship.

"People who say they go to church every week but say they have no close friends there are not any happier than people who never go to church," Lim said. "People who say they go once a month or less and say they have a couple of close friends in the church they attend tend to be happier than people who say they go every week but have no close friends."

The researchers also found that if you compare two people with the same number of close friends in life -- both inside the church and out -- those with stronger relationships in church report being happier. In other words, people get more satisfaction out of their church friendships than they do out of other friendships in their lives.

"I am not a religious person, and so after I did this study I was surprised by how well the friendships in a congregation actually explain people's satisfaction," Lim said. "I personally began to think about whether I have to go to church. It would make my Mom happy."

Family dynamics aside, going to church isn't necessarily the only route to life satisfaction, said John Helliwell, co-director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research's program on Social Interactions, Identity, and Well-being at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

"What's especially important and interesting about this work is it's asking what it is about religious activity that's most productive for people," Helliwell said. "The most important part is time spent with friends that they make through church, and that is amplified to the extent that they all identify with that church. For all of them, church is the most important part of their life, and to the extent that's true, the more satisfaction they get."

"I guess we'll find something similar in other aspects of life," he added, as long as connections are based on a strong sense of trust and belonging. "The nature of the social connections is very important. You might guess that the more important the things you share are, the more easily you would connect with people."

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