Science on Religion

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The best part about Sunday? Church!

church_blue_skyPeople go to church for a variety of reasons: to hear moving sermons, to sing powerful hymns, to escape hellfire. One particularly good reason for attending church is to socialize with fellow believers. It may seem shallow to spend sacred time fraternizing with friends, but this aspect of church life has been found to correlate with happiness. Sociologists Chaeyoon Lim (University of Wisconsin–Madison) and Robert Putnam (Harvard University) discovered that happiness is greater in adults whose identity comes from religion, who attend church regularly, and who have several friends whose identity also comes from religion.

The research employed the life-satisfaction scale, which rates how much people are satisfied with their lives (10 being most satisfied). Thirty-three percent of people with a strong religious identity and 3-5 church friends reported a solid 10, and the number rose to almost 40% when the number of church friends increased to 11 or more. Only 20% of believers who go to church regularly, have 3-5 church friends, but do not associate their identity with their religion, reported a 10. As for those who are not religious and do not have church friends, only 20% of them reported a 10.

From these findings, Lim and Putnam concluded that happiness is highest amongst those who strongly identify with their religion and have friends of the same religion. They controlled for having a large number of friends in general, and found that the number of friends outside of church did not affect the happiness of those with church friends. Importantly, their conclusions apply only to American Protestants and Catholics, since they did not gather enough data from those of other religions or other countries.

Also interesting is what aspects of church do not impact happiness. Contrary to popular belief, reporting experiencing God’s presence or feeling God’s love did not increase happiness. Neither did praying or hearing sermons. Spiritual practices can boost happiness, but in this study it only did so for those who had church friends. Additionally, those who attended church but did not make any friends there had less happiness than those who didn't attend church at all (regardless of their religiousness).

For those who are religious, attending church and making friends there may be the best way to increase overall happiness. So the next time you have to choose between watching a football game with your football friends and going to church with your church friends, you just might be happier spending Sunday being with others as they pray rather than being with others as they play.

For more, see “Connected at church, happy with life” in ScienceNews.

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