Religious Networks Promote Happiness

Skipping church might mean more than missing out on a dose of spirituality, according to a recent study published in the American Sociological Review.

The study—authored by Government Professor Robert D. Putnam and Chaeyoon Lim, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—found that the social experience of religious congregations promotes a sense of happiness and life satisfaction that is stronger than what religious activity alone fosters.

Even occasional attendance at religious venues increases a sense of happiness, the study showed.

According to Putnam, church friends are “super-charged,” offering shared spiritual connections and demonstrating greater “bonding, acceptance, and social belonging.” These “super-charged” friends were also found to be “nicer” in general, and were more likely to volunteer.

Putnam and Lim interviewed over 3,100 Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian congregants to determine which aspect of the religious experience explains why spirituality correlates with higher levels of life satisfaction, which other studies have found. The interviewees were asked about various factors of happiness and life satisfaction.

According to the study, 28 percent of people who attended religious services where they had three to five close friends reported being “extremely satisfied” with their lives, whereas 20 percent of people who were not churchgoers said the same.

According to Putnam, some interviewees said they were shocked with many of the findings associated with their responses.

“While many other studies have argued that it is the sense of happiness from the introspective nature of religion itself that makes churchgoers more likely to have greater satisfaction in life, our findings were different,” Lim said.

Factors such as praying, having strong faith, and holding religious services at home appeared unrelated to happiness because they lacked what Putnam believes is the “key ingredient”—social interaction.

Rather, active participation in religious congregations—not mere physical presence in a religious venue—“helps foster a structure of relationships with the highest indication of happiness, behind general health,” Lim said.

Putnam added that he plans to explore whether having friends in “non-religious contexts” promotes similar effects as “super-charged” friends.

—Staff writer Meghan M. Brockmeyer can be reached at mbrockmeyer@college.harvard.edu.

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