Study: Happiness is having friends at church

Study: Happiness is having friends at church



By Michelle Healy, USA TODAY

Attending religious services regularly and having close friends in the congregation are key to having a happier, more satisfying life, a study finds.

Even attending services irregularly — just several times a year — increases a sense of well-being, so long as there is a circle of friendships within the community and a strong, shared religious identity.

Women greet each other outside of church.
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That's the key finding of a study released today in the December issue of the American Sociological Review.

Numerous studies have shown that religious people report a higher level of well-being compared with the non-religious, says Chaeyoon Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the study. But what aspect of religiousness — church attendance, prayer, theology or spirituality — accounts for this level of life satisfaction has been unclear.

Lim's study finds that when people with similar levels of church attendance are compared, the key factors determining happiness are the social aspect of religion and a shared religious connection built around identity and belonging.

Lim says that "90% of the correlation between church attendance and life satisfaction can be explained if you have these close interactions."

It comes as no surprise that having more friends would increase one's general sense of well being, says Daniel Olson, an associate professor of sociology at Purdue University, who wasn't involved in the new study. What's unique about the findings is the suggestion that well-being among religious people "probably has more to do with having religious friends than going to church," he says.

For the study, Lim and co-author Robert Putnam analyzed data collected during 2006 and 2007 as part of the Faith Matters Study, a nationwide survey of a representative sample of adults. The survey, examining the various ways that religion affects American society, is the focus of the recently released book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Putnam and David Campbell.

According to the findings on religion and life satisfaction, 33% of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report being "extremely satisfied" with their lives. The study also finds that 15% of weekly church attendees said they had no close friends at church, and people who say they participate in private religious practices, such as services held at home, were no happier than those who never attend congregational services.

The importance of congregational connectedness to life satisfaction is in line with research conducted by Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Boston University.

"There's a high trust level in congregations," Ammerman says. "The ability to call on people for social support is very high, even if the people are not necessarily the people you'd call your best friends."

Lim notes that the study's findings cut across all the main Christian denominations, as well as Jews and Mormons. The sample size of other religious groups was too small to draw conclusions.

Social connections count

People who report being "extremely satisfied" with their lives, on a scale of 1 to 10:

Attend religious services Friends in congregation "Extremely satisfied"
Weekly 3-5 33%
Several times a year 3-5 23%
Weekly 0 19%
Never 0 19%

Source: American Sociological Review

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