It’s long been known that people with religious faith tend to be more satisfied with their lives — the question has been why. Now University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) and Harvard University researchers believe they have come up with the answer, and the “secret ingredient” is…friendship. “Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that lead to life satisfaction,” wrote study author Chaeyoon Lim, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at UW. I gave Dr. Lim a call to find out more.

Happiness Is Praying Together

To examine religion’s impact on our sense of well-being, Dr. Lim and his colleagues analyzed data from the 2006 and 2007 Faith Matters Study. To collect this data, a commercial research company randomly phoned thousands of Americans twice in a one-year period and asked about their religious practices and life satisfaction and happiness. The survey included a representative sample of Americans, with most being of Christian faith, and smaller numbers of Jews and Muslims. In a close examination of the results, Dr. Lim and his team found that…

  • One-third of people (33%) who attended religious services once a week and had three to five friends in the congregation were extremely satisfied with their lives (meaning that they ranked their satisfaction as “10” on a scale of one to 10).
  • In contrast, only 19% of those who attended weekly services but had no friends in the congregation reported extreme satisfaction.
  • Nearly one-quarter of those who attended services sporadically (several times a year) but still had three to five friends in the congregation were extremely satisfied with their lives.
  • Just 19% of people who never attended religious services — and thus had no congregational friends — were extremely satisfied with their lives.
  • After factoring in church attendance and congregational friendship, the authors also discovered that private religious practices — such as feeling God’s presence in daily life and praying — did not have a measurable impact on life satisfaction.

Dr. Lim told me that he found this last finding a bit surprising, since earlier research had suggested otherwise, but he said that this study demonstrates that the social dimension of religion—specifically, the closeness of the community where you attend services—is what’s important. “For life satisfaction,” he says, “praying together seems better than either praying alone or, say, bowling together.” Results were published in the December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review.

Why Friends Matter

This provides yet more evidence of how and why our social connections help our health, but what is it about deriving social support from shared spiritual pursuits that is so special? Dr. Lim gets this question all the time and doesn’t know the answer yet…although he noted that we do know that people with more friends in generaltend to be happier. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that one could get the same benefits from a group of close friends who meet on a regular basis, engage in meaningful activities and have a shared sense of social identity. Then again, it could be that there is something unique about friendship based on religious faith—what Dr. Lim calls “morally infused” social support—that cannot be found in the secular community. He and his colleagues are currently gathering more data to address this question.

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