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.