Praying alone is no fun; having friends at church makes you happier

Flickr photo by Shavar Ross

[Also cross-posted on the American Grace Blog]
American Grace research team members Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam have an article in the prestigious American Sociological Review demonstrating that religion actually makes you happier and it works through having close friends at church.

“Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “Listening to sermons or praying is not enough.  In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient that makes people happier.”

A host of studies have found a correlation between happiness and religiosity, but they suffered from the vulnerabilities of any single shot survey. Was religiosity truly causing happiness, was happiness causing greater religiosity, or was some third factor responsible (say an extroverted gene that made people both happier and more likely to go to “church”)? With the large nationally representative Faith Matters surveys, which interviewed the same Americans twice in a 6-9 month period, Lim and Putnam demonstrate that increased church attendance over that 6-9 month period increases life satisfaction. Surprisingly, they find that more overtly religious factors like theology (e.g., belief about the type of God or the afterlife or what religion you belong to) and private religious practices (e.g., experiencing God’s presence in your life or saying Grace or frequency of prayer) did not predict greater life satisfaction.

So what explained the power of religious attendance? Lim and Putnam found that it was having close friends in one’s house of worship. While friends in general cause people to have greater life satisfaction, friends at church serve as “super-charged” friends, with an even stronger impact on life satisfaction than secular friends.

It’s not clear exactly why close friends at church have such strong power. Lim and Putnam speculate that these church friends anchor “a strong sense of belonging in these religious communities” and provide parishioners with “morally-infused social support. In other words, if one seeks life satisfaction, it is neither faith nor communities alone that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems better than either bowling together or praying alone. These findings suggest that religious leaders should invest more of their time, treasure and talent in deepening the social dimensions of congregational life, such as through small support or worship groups, potlucks and choirs. This is likely to pay dividends to their congregants in making them happier and also benefit the religious leaders by making their congregants more likely to stay active religious members.”

Specifically, they find that those who attend church sporadically but nonetheless have close friends at church, likely working through religious spouses, are quite high in life satisfaction whereas those who attend church regularly but don’t have church friends are not. “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” (a 10 on the 1 to 10 question scale). “In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are 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. 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.”

Note: Putnam and Lim control for the all the natural demographic correlates that might be causing spurious findings.

The Faith Matters findings apply to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). “We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size,” said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.

It’s possible that there are other real-world secular examples of groups where in-group friendships provide the same level of ‘morally-infused” social support: e.g., 12-step programs, or zealous environmental activist networks, or uncorrupted unions, or MADD. Since these findings are relatively new, we haven’t firmly tested to find secular equivalents of these morally-infused networks although it is clear that there is nothing in the US that has anything like the frequency of friends of church, since so many more Americans are in the pews on a Sunday than participating weekly in an environmental group or a 12-step program. The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron has made clear to us in conversations, given much lower levels of religiosity in that country, that he is actively interested in finding out if there are secular takeaways from these life satisfaction findings that could be applied in the UK without exhorting more Brits to attend and make friends at church; Cameron’s interest is also sparked by his recent decision to actively measure life satisfaction in the UK as a key indicator of how well government is doing.

We’ll also be doing some further testing in additional surveying we are doing to try to understand more about what makes “close friends at church” so powerful. We welcome your thoughts…

CNN notes: “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.”

Cite: “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review, 75(6), December 2010.

Beyond CNN, see news stories in USA TodayNational Post, Discovery, Live Science, Science News, TIMES of India, Montreal Gazette, and Daily Mail.

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