In study after study, researchers have found that religion makes people happy. Nearly 30 percent of people who attend religious services weekly report “extreme” satisfaction with their lives, compared with less than 20 percent of those who steer clear of religious institutions. Why? Is it because churchgoers feel loved by God? Is it because they sleep easy at night, knowing where they’ll go after they die? No and no. A new study finds that the answer may be much closer to hand: Churchgoers are happier because of the friends they’ve made in the pews.
Two sociologists, Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Robert Putnam of Harvard (author of Bowling Alone, a seminal 2000 book about Americans’ declining social connectedness),find that people who have close friends from their congregations are more likely to be happy than those who have the same number of close friends through nonreligious affiliations. People who regularly attend church and have three to five close friends from their religious community are 50 percent more likely to be “extremely satisfied” with their lives than nonreligious people who have the same number of friends.
Any evidence that a belief in God by itself leads to happiness is “weak and inconsistent,” the authors report. Private practices such as praying at home are not linked to greater life satisfaction. Those who attend church but have no friends there are not any likelier to be happy than those who stay home on Sunday.
If you aren’t a believer and are looking for more satisfaction in your life, a strategy of going to church in order to make friends isn’t going to work: A bevy of friends from church does little to bolster life satisfaction for those who don’t consider religion an important part of who they are. What really seems to make people happy is the sense of belonging that comes from a combination of religious identity and religious friends. As Lim and Putnam put it, “It is neither faith nor communities, per se, that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems to be better than either bowling together or praying alone.”