Connected at church, happy with life

Religion aids well-being via church-based friendships, survey shows

When it comes to feeling good about one’s life, friendliness is next to godliness.

Personal well-being blossoms among U.S. adults who strongly identify with their religion, regularly attend church and have three or more close friends in their congregation, say sociologists Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Robert Putnam of Harvard University.

Members of this devoutly connected group cite especially high levels of life satisfaction regardless of how many or how few friends they have outside their congregation, Lim and Putnam report in the December American Sociological Review.

“Our evidence shows 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 social networks there,” Lim says.

The new findings apply to mainline and evangelical Protestants and to Catholics. Too few people from other religions were surveyed to make comparisons.

Researchers have long noted that religious people report higher levels of happiness and well-being than nonreligious folk. Lim and Putnam offer a rare glimpse, based on telephone surveys of a national sample of 1,915 adults in 2006 and 2007, of how religion improves quality of life.

In their analysis, people who belong to a congregation but have no friends there report less satisfaction with their lives than those who don’t attend religious services or who are religious but have no congregation. In other words, sitting alone in the pew does not make for a happy life.

What’s more, spiritual aspects of religion do little to further well-being, the researchers say. Neither survey participants who “personally experience the presence of God” nor those who often “personally feel God’s love in life” report more well-being than people who do not. Volunteers who do and don’t believe in God or heaven with absolute certainty display comparable satisfaction with their lives.

Private religious practices, such as praying and holding religious services at home, also show no link to greater life satisfaction, the new report finds.

Lim and Putnam demonstrate that well-being peaks among people who have friends in a congregation and whose identities revolve around religion, remarks sociologist Michael Hout of the University of California, Berkeley. But the survey questions did not cover the gamut of spiritual beliefs, even among members of the same congregation, that forge religious identity in the first place, Hout asserts. Those beliefs combine with congregational friendships to make life more satisfying, he proposes.

Lim emphasizes that, according to survey data, spirituality and theology bolster well-being only for people who build friendships at church.

Crucially, he notes, among religious people who reported similar levels of life satisfaction and the same number of congregational friends as one another in 2006, only those who had formed additional church-based friendships by 2007 described upswings in life satisfaction.

In both survey years, about half of Lim and Putnam’s national sample regarded religion as central to a sense of self. Another 17 percent had no religious preference or affiliation.

One-third of participants who had a strong religious identity and three to five close friends in their congregation reported being “extremely satisfied” with their lives, a figure that rose to nearly 40 percent for those with 11 or more such friends. The researchers defined “extremely satisfied” as a rating of 10 on a life-satisfaction scale ranging from one to 10.

In contrast, one-fifth of churchgoers who had three to five congregational friends but didn’t identify strongly with their faith reported extreme life satisfaction. The same figure applied to nonreligious people whose friends were not part of congregations.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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