A New Claim that Religion leads to More Happiness

December 7, 2010

As reported over at Science Blog , a new article published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review , says that religion’s “secret ingredient” has been discovered.

According to this study, the secret ingredient is ... friends. Religion's supply of close community in churches makes people happier.

Science Blog quotes the study's lead researcher:

“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, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier.”

Is this news, and what does it really mean? Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have long been pointing to the way that religion strengthens community bonds (see the work of Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, for example). And no one could be surprised that friends help people feel happier. The co-author of this study, Robert Putnam, also has a new book out, titled American Grace . One must wonder what this book can rightly say about religion. 

Science Blog focuses on the data behind the hype in this new 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. “Extremely satisfied” is defined as a 10 on a scale ranging from 1 to 10.

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.

Now, is this study revealing any connection between religion and happiness? This data can't show it. Instead, this study exposes the connection between having friends and life satisfaction. Look only at the two groups who "have no close friends in the congregation":

19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are extremely satisfied.

19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation , say they are extremely satisfied with their lives.

It is the same percentage! The only thing exposed by this study is the obvious way that having close friends has some relationship to life satisfaction. There is no secret ingredient here -- any community that supplies the opportunity to have close friends will indirectly support life satisfaction.

Is anyone surprised that having close friends can increase personal happiness? Studies like this latest one cannot tell us anything new about religion at all. Atheists can have just as many friends as religious people. No doubt communities help people form close friendships. Entirely secular communities have just as good an opportunity to support life satisfaction in this friendly manner. There is nothing magical about churches at all.

Comments:

#1 John D (Guest) on Tuesday December 07, 2010 at 8:54am

A good observation John.  I would also like to point out a flaw in almost all happiness studies.  This flaw is in the way happiness is measured.

Basically, these studies are a survey where people simply state how happy they are.  All the data is self reported.  What this is really measuring is how happy someone believes they are versus how happy they expect they could be.

Perhaps people who attend church have lower expectations for what makes them happy.  This is a very troublesome complicating factor and spoils a study like this.  How can we measure happiness?  How happy should we be and expect to be?  Certainly, this may be very different between religious and non-religious people.

Another problem with many religious studies is the gender effect.  Women outnumber men in church attendance.  Men outnumber women (2 to 1) in claiming they are atheists.  This is a common bias that is often overlooked.  A recent study claimed religious people gave more to charity than non-religious people… but… once gender was adjusted for, there was no significant difference.  The study was really a measure that women gave more to charity than men.

And finally, these studies almost always rely on people self reporting their church attendance.  It has been shown over and over again that people exaggerate their frequency of church attendance.  This reporting is likely biased due to the fact that people assume church attendance is a virtue and thus over report on their own virtue.

All in all, it is very hard to extract excellent results from these survey based studies.  I wonder if they have any value at all.

#2 Matt M. (Guest) on Tuesday December 07, 2010 at 10:48am

Very good points raised in John’s blog above and comments by John D. in Comment #1. 

John D. - would you happen to know either the citation or any details on the study adjusting for gender (ie author, journal, year)?  I would like to look that one up.

#3 John D. (Guest) on Tuesday December 07, 2010 at 11:01am

Here is the article I referenced in Epephenom.

#4 John D. (Guest) on Tuesday December 07, 2010 at 11:03am

Haha.  Sorry.  I now realize a guest can’t post a link.  I will have to get myself registered.  In the mean time go to the site called epiphenom.

Search under gender and you will find the article titled: Gender, Religion, and Volunteering.

#5 liberalartist on Wednesday December 08, 2010 at 9:24am

Wouldn’t a questionaire about your happiness level depend on how you are feeling that day? That doesn’t strike me as very scientifically accurate.

#6 MattM on Wednesday December 08, 2010 at 7:00pm

Thanks John. Epiphenom looks like an interesting site.  Here is the link to the study and summary for the Epiphenom website.

http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2010/09/gender-religion-and-volunteering.html

In this new study, Lydia Manning of Miami University, analysed data from the Health and Retirement Study which, since 1992, has been tracking a group of over 12,000 retired people across the USA.Manning’s analysis looked at the original 1992 survey, focusing on the 6,000-odd people who reported doing over 100 hours of voluntary work a year.

What she found was that women were much more likely to be volunteers - 15 times more likely, in fact. Once she took this into account, however, there was no relationship between religiosity and volunteering.

#7 Hereticus Magnimus on Thursday December 09, 2010 at 11:08pm

It seems more than a little amusing, if the 19% to 19% comparison is important to the study and IF IT’S EVEN TRUE, that it is not reported in the American Sociological Review (the original peer-reviewed publication).

Just goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read, even on a well-respected blog. You especially can’t naively accept information you encounter when it’s third-hand or further from the original source. A great reminder that one should apply skeptical scrutiny consistently, even to claims that they want to believe!!!

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