Category Archives: life satisfaction

The connection between religiosity and wellbeing

Our colleague, Chaeyoon Lim, wrote a summary of his research findings on the connection between religiosity and wellbeing using the amazing Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).

Excerpt: “Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. Frequent churchgoers experience an average of 3.36 positive emotions per day compared with an average of 3.08 among those who never attend. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income.”

Not included in Chaeyoon’s published comments, he also found that, even controlling for other factors like age, gender, race, and the like, Americans would have either had to increase their income by $90,000 a year or gain a college education to have the same increase in life satisfaction as they get from weekly church attendance.”

If you click on the below graph, you can see that all religions and even respondents with no religion frequently reported higher life satisfaction  as they went to church more often (controlling for all the standard factors like age, region, gender, income, education, etc.).  You may ask how those with no religion attended “church” frequently;  most typically in our Faith Matters surveys it was when a religious spouse got their non-religious spouse to accompany them.

Chaeyoon’s work also shows that while all Americans are happier on the weekend, secular Americans experience a drop from Saturday to Sunday in their happiness;  religious Americans are happier every day from Monday through Saturday and then their happiness, rather than declining on Sunday, goes up even higher than Saturday.

Read “In U.S., Churchgoers Boast Better Mood, Especially on Sundays: Those who don’t attend religious services often see their mood decline” (by Chaeyoon Lim)

For other work on the connection between happiness, life satisfaction and religiosity, see American Grace (end of Chapter 12) and “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction” by Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, American Sociological Review 2010, Vol. 75(6): 914–93.

Measuring happiness comes close to home

Flickr photo by seq

We’ve reported earlier on the UK government’s recent decision to measure the happiness of its citizens.  The latest government to do so is neighboring Somerville, MA.  Somerville, which went by the nickname of “Slummerville” in the 1980s for cheap and affordable 3-decker housing and the highest residential concentration of any community in New England, has recently become more hip and gentrified thanks to the revitalization of places like Inman Square and Davis Square.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone is a recent graduate of the mid-career program Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and a visionary who has worked with HKS on many other local government measurement projects (SomerStat). The NY Times quotes Curtatone as saying that the project was a “no-brainer” and he noted that “cities keep careful track of their finances, but a bond rating doesn’t tell us how people feel or why they want to raise a family here or relocate a business here.”

The city is collaborating with happiness expert Dan Gilbert at Harvard and ultimately hopes to use these data to see how things like the extension of the subway green line affect happiness or how Somerville’s happiness compares with neighboring towns.

The voluntary survey asks such questions like:

  • How happy do you feel right now? (1-10 scale)How satisfied are you with your life in general? (1-10 scale)
    In general, how similar are you to other people you know? (1-10 scale)
    When making decisions, are you more likely to seek advice or decide for yourself? (1-10 scale)
  • Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live? (1-10 scale)

The survey also asks residents to rate Somerville’s “beauty or physical setting” [likely fairly low for anyone who has spent time in Somerville], “availability of affordable housing”, quality of local public schools, and effectiveness of local police.

Researchers hope to correlate ratings of well-being, demographics, satisfaction with Somerville amenities, and proximity to various parts of Somerville to unpack what makes residents more or less satisfied.

As the NY Times observes: “Monitoring the citizenry’s happiness has been advocated by prominent psychologists and economists, but not without debate over how to do it and whether happiness is even the right thing for politicians to be promoting. The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that is not the same as reporting blissful feelings on a questionnaire. ”

See “How Happy Are You? A Census Wants to Know” (NY Times, 4/30/11 by John Tierney)

See Somerville’s voluntary “Wellbeing and Community Survey

See “Somerville, Mass., aims to boost happiness. Can it?” (CS Monitor, 4/4/11 by Mary Helen Miller)

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.

Should parents ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning?’

I wrote recently about Alan Krueger’s interesting research on how religion and sports/exercise bring happiness.

An NPR story recently referred to a meta-study of happiness and parenting featured in Newsweek magazine (which claimed that parents have 7% less happiness on average) and highlighted research of Florida State University’s Robin Simon (sociology) asserting that caring for kids brought greater depression and unhappiness, partly because of the childcaring itself and partly because of shriveled social networks that stemmed from parents staying in more (for the latter finding, Simon cites research by Linsbeth Levin at Duke).

Excerpts from NPR story:

“Dr. Simon: (reporting on parents’ self-rated emotions in sample of 13,000 time diary reports): They [parents] definitely experienced more depression. They – people with kids, all parents, that is to say including people with kids who are living at home, young children who are living at home, as well as empty-nest parents, surprisingly, when you combine all kinds of parents in the United States, and ask them, you know, if they experience these serious emotions, what you find is that they report significantly more feelings of depression than people who have never had kids.

MIKE PESCA: [NPR Bryan Project host] Does it correlate to the number of kids, or just having a kid?

Dr. SIMON: Well, we actually didn’t look at the number of kids, though I suspect that it does, because other sociological studies have found that the more kids one has the more feelings of depression.”

Simon goes on to say that some of this depression stems from the fact that parents are on their own and we don’t provide them enough social support and provide enough family-friendly policies for them to reap the full benefits of parenthood, including having access to decent healthcare. And host Mike Pesca describes Dan Gilbert’s work (Harvard, psychology) that asserts that parents are happier sleeping and grocery shopping than childrearing.

Simon goes own to admit that the while parents often report lower short-term happiness from parenting, most feel immense life satisfaction and pride from being parents.

Interestingly, this research doesn’t accord with careful research of hotshot economist Alan Krueger (at Princeton), whose work I discussed in an earlier blog post. He finds childcare giving as the fifth most pleasurable activity (out of 21 asked), where pleasurability (or their U-index) is the percent of 15-minute segments in which stressed/sadness/pain emotions exceeded happiness. Childcare had the 5th LOWEST U-index score. The Krueger research is preferably methodologically since it controls for respondents’ baseline levels of happiness, depression, etc. and thus is able to weed out whether parents, for example, are just more happier people in general. You can read the Krueger study here.

Money can’t buy you love, but can it buy you happiness?

The common wisdom is that being wealthier as a country (beyond some minimal threshold) doesn’t make its residents happier.  [It’s a seeming paradox epnonymously named after Richard Easterlin.]

Angus Deaton’s recent study (“Income, Aging, Health and Wellbeing Around the World”, 2007) claims that this is incorrect; he finds that national level income does make you happier.  (Deaton thinks that the Easterlin paradox resulted from an overly high influence of former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries analyzed in a World Values Survey that have, post Communism, much lower life satisfaction than would be expected at their levels of income, but are less typical of the overall pattern.)

There is still some disagreement about how much this overturns the Easterlin paradox.  Deaton, and the Gallup World survey use a “ladder” question to evaluate life-satisfaction.  The question is of the form: ‘Imagine an eleven-rung ladder where the bottom (0) represents “the worst possible life for you” and the top (10) represents “the best possible life for you. On which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?”   Such ladder questions have tended to be more related to national income levels than the standard ‘subjective wellbeing question’ of the form:  “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays? Please answer using a scale where 1 means extremely dissatisfied and 10 means extremely satisfied.” (This type of question can be asked with different number of points on the scale or labels for the points)

Moreover, Deaton does find that while ‘ladder-type’ wellbeing rises with national income, there is a negative relationship between economic growth and such wellbeing.  It is possible that the process of economic growth is de-stabilizing, anxiety-ridden and enervating, in a way that saps wellbeing in the short-term.

In any event, it should be noted, that at the individual-level it is RELATIVE income (being wealthier than one’s neighbors) that makes you happier, not absolute income.  So if you had the choice of living in a poorer neighborhood where you were wealthier than your neighbors, or living in a wealthy neighborhood where you were poorer than your neighbors, the former is the better strategy for being happy. (See Luttmer, Erzo. F. P. (2005). Neighbors As Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being.)

To read the Deaton paper, see: “Income, Aging, Health and Wellbeing Around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll” (NBER paper, Aug. 2007 by Angus Deaton)
Summary: During 2006, the Gallup Organization conducted a World Poll that used an identical questionnaire for national samples of adults from 132 countries.  I analyze the data on life satisfaction (happiness) and on health satisfaction and look at their relationships with national income, age, and life-expectancy.  Average happiness is strongly related to per capita national income; each doubling of income is associated with a near one point increase in life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10.  Unlike most previous findings, the effect holds across the range of international incomes; if anything, it is slightly stronger among rich countries.  Conditional on national income, recent economic growth makes people unhappier, improvements in life-expectancy make them happier, but life-expectancy itself has little effect. Age has an internationally inconsistent relationship with happiness.  National income moderates the effects of aging on self-reported health, and the decline in health satisfaction and rise in disability with age are much stronger in poor countries than in rich countries.  In line with earlier findings, people in much of Eastern Europe and in the countries of the former Soviet Union are particularly unhappy and particularly dissatisfied with their health, and older people in those countries are much less satisfied with their lives and with their health than are younger people.  HIV prevalence in Africa has little effect on Africans’ life or health satisfaction; the fraction of Kenyans who are satisfied with their personal health is the same as the fraction of Britons and higher than the fraction of Americans.  The US ranks 81st out of 115 countries in the fraction of people who have confidence in their healthcare system, and has a lower score than countries such as India, Iran, Malawi, or Sierra Leone.  While the strong relationship between life-satisfaction and income gives some credence to the measures, as do the low levels of life and health satisfaction in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, the lack of correlations between life and health satisfaction and health measures shows that happiness (or self-reported health) measures cannot be regarded as useful summary indicators of human welfare in international comparisons.

Does Facebook help enhance your friendships?

Three researchers at Michigan State University (Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfield, Cliff Lampe) have published The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.

The study purports to find that (at least on MSU campus), more Facebook use is associated with higher levels of social capital, but especially useful for maintaing social ties to high school friends and to building bridging social capital. I’m less persuaded by these latter two findings. For “maintained social capital” all the reports of “maintaining social ties” that they use are self-reports and more hypothetical and less behavioral. So the study asks whether you would have a person you could stay with from high school rather than how many times in the last year (if ever) you did so. I think the measures encourage inflated perceptions of whether e-connections are valuable, without any tethering to real world behavior to test whether these inflated perceptions are valid. I’ve written earlier on how Facebook can cheapen the currency of “friendship” and simply calling someone a friend doesn’t necessarily afford the same benefits as comes with friends made off-line.

“Bridging” social capital in the study really just means an imagined connection with the MSU community and the ability to make new friends. I would find the results more powerful if the questions referred to actual friendship networks with people who were different than the respondent (with regard to race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) or questions on trust of different ethnic groups as we’ve done in our 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Even in our surveying where we ask people how many close personal friends they have who are African American, Asian, Hispanic, etc. we find that people enlarge their circle of “close” friends to find bridging relationships. So we know already that there is response desirability (people want to be able to report bridging relationships) and this tendency is fueled by loosely worded questions. I’m confident that people using the Internet think it increases their social bridges (the folk wisdom that “the Internet brings us all together”), so it requires more tightly worded questions to sort out fizzle from fact.

One of the more interesting findings from the paper was their finding, contrary to some of the “rich get richer” Meetup analysis I have done about what type of users benefit from participating in Meetup, was that the “poor get richer” through Facebook. [They use the terms slightly differently than I did; I was referring to people who were richer in “social capital” (already more socially connected) benefitting more than the people who were less connected. By the “poor get richer”, they mean that those with lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, may show the biggest gains by using Facebook more.] Nevertheless, the finding is still interesting.

Conclusion: it’s more serious research than I’ve seen on Facebook, but still leaves me hungering for better measures that are more behavioral and less ethereal.

Postscript: There is an interesting, more rigorous study of Facebook by Nicholas Christakis and Jason Kauffman at Harvard, but the results for now are largely limited to verifying homophily (the fact that “birds of a feather flock together”) on Facebook.