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Religion provides happiness because of the social ties, study claims

Dec. 7, 2010
Courtesy of American Sociological Association
and World Science staff

The rea­son re­li­gious peo­ple are hap­pi­er than oth­ers is be­cause of the so­cial con­nec­tions of­fered by their faith group, not so much be­cause of the spir­it­u­al be­liefs, a study sug­gests.

Au­thors of the re­search, pub­lished in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the Amer­i­can So­ci­o­lo­g­i­cal Re­view, claim they have found the “se­cret in­gre­di­ent” that ex­plains why re­peat­ed stud­ies have linked re­li­gion to great­er life sat­is­fac­tion.

“Our study of­fers com­pel­ling ev­i­dence that it is the so­cial as­pects of re­li­gion rath­er than the­ol­o­gy or spir­it­u­al­ity that leads to life sat­is­fac­tion,” said so­ci­ol­o­gist Chaey­oon Lim of the Uni­vers­ity of Wis­con­sin-Mad­i­son, who led the stu­dy. “Friend­ships built in re­li­gious con­grega­t­ions are the se­cret in­gre­di­ent in re­li­gion that makes peo­ple hap­pi­er.”

Lim and co-author Rob­ert D. Put­nam of Har­vard Uni­vers­ity used da­ta from the Faith Mat­ters Study, a pan­el sur­vey of a “rep­re­sent­a­tive” sam­ple of U.S. adults in 2006 and 2007. Ac­cord­ing to the stu­dy, 33 per­cent of peo­ple who at­tend re­li­gious ser­vic­es eve­ry week and have three to five close friends in their con­grega­t­ion re­port that they are “ex­tremely sat­is­fied” with their lives. “Ex­tremely sat­is­fied” is de­fined as a 10 on a scale rang­ing from 1 to 10.

In com­par­i­son, only 19 per­cent of peo­ple who at­tend ser­vic­es week­ly, but who have no close friends in their con­grega­t­ion call them­selves ex­tremely sat­is­fied. On the oth­er hand, 23 per­cent of peo­ple who at­tend ser­vic­es only sev­er­al times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their con­grega­t­ion are ex­tremely sat­is­fied with their lives, the re­search­ers re­ported. Fi­nal­ly, 19 per­cent of peo­ple who nev­er at­tend ser­vic­es say they’re ex­tremely sat­is­fied with their lives.

“To me, the ev­i­dence sub­stanti­ates that it is not really go­ing to church and lis­ten­ing to ser­mons or pray­ing that makes peo­ple hap­pi­er, but mak­ing church-based friends and build­ing in­ti­mate so­cial net­works there,” Lim said.

“One of the im­por­tant func­tions of re­li­gion is to give peo­ple a sense of be­longing to a mor­al com­mun­ity based on re­li­gious faith,” he said. “This com­mun­ity, how­ev­er, could be ab­stract and re­mote un­less one has an in­ti­mate cir­cle of friends who share a si­m­i­lar ident­ity. The friends in one’s con­grega­t­ion thus make the re­li­gious com­mun­ity real and tan­gi­ble, and strength­en one’s sense of be­longing to the com­mun­ity.”


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The reason religious people are happier than others is because of the social connections offered by their faith group, not no much because of the spiritual beliefs, a study suggests. Authors of the research, published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review, claim they have found the “secret ingredient” that explains why repeated studies have linked religion to greater life satisfaction. “Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “Friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier.” Lim and co-author Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University used data from the Faith Matters Study, a panel survey of a representative sample of U.S. adults in 2006 and 2007. According to the study, 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report that they are “extremely satisfied” with their lives. “Extremely satisfied” is defined as a 10 on a scale ranging from 1 to 10. In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation call themselves extremely satisfied. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who attend religious services only several times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their congregation are extremely satisfied with their lives, the researchers reported. Finally, 19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation, say they are extremely satisfied with their lives. “To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there,” Lim said. According to Lim, people like to feel that they belong. “One of the important functions of religion is to give people a sense of belonging to a moral community based on religious faith,” he said. “This community, however, could be abstract and remote unless one has an intimate circle of friends who share a similar identity. The friends in one’s congregation thus make the religious community real and tangible, and strengthen one’s sense of belonging to the community.”