Study reveals ‘secret ingredient’ in religion that makes people happier

WASHINGTON, DC, December 1, 2010 — While the positive correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction has long been known, a new study in the December issue of the American Sociological Review reveals religion’s “secret ingredient” that makes people happier.

“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.”

In their study, “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” Lim and co-author Robert D. Putnam, the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, use data from the Faith Matters Study, a panel survey of a representative sample of U.S. adults in 2006 and 2007. The panel survey was discussed in detail in the recently published book American Grace by Putnam and David E. Campbell.

According to the 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.

“To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there,” Lim said.

According to Lim, people like to feel that they belong. “One of the important functions of religion is to give people a sense of belonging to a moral community based on religious faith,” he said. “This community, however, could be abstract and remote unless one has an intimate circle of friends who share a similar identity. The friends in one’s congregation thus make the religious community real and tangible, and strengthen one’s sense of belonging to the community.”

The study’s findings are applicable to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). “We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size,” said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.

About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review

The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is the ASA’s flagship journal.

The research article described above is available by request for members of the media. For a copy of the full study, contact Daniel Fowler, ASA’s Media Relations and Public Affairs Officer, at (202) 527-7885 or [email protected].

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10 thoughts on “Study reveals ‘secret ingredient’ in religion that makes people happier”

  1. It seems rather 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 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!!!

  2. I agree with Irritated Undergrad. Did it not occur to these researchers that maybe people who are extroverts and more likely to reach out and make friends, no matter what environment they are in (church, school, whatever), are more likely to be “extremely satisfied”? So they could be happy because they find friends and friends make them happy. Nothing to do with religion. Very poorly done study and I’m disappointed that people claim illogical results and state them as facts. Are we not in the 21st century?

  3. It doesn’t take a survey to figure this out. Churches tend to try to help people and typically more efficiently than any government or other non profit program. I think you will find a similar relationship in non-profit volunteers. We you are able to help others less fortunate and are able to share that with others who are doing the same, it provides the greatest satisfaction. However, this does not put big profits in the traditional for-profit corporate world. Also, our commercialised society try to pound in our heads that the more money and things you have the happier you are. Misery typically follows are reality sets in that it is all a lie; however, by that time you are already neck deep in debt and experience the resurrection of debtor’s prison. That is why the survey is not as thorough. It would clearly suggest that money and things are not happiness but tools. They might as well claim a cure for cancer. The repercussions would be similar.

  4. Okay okay, what the hell. I understand what this study is getting at and why it’s interesting, but this article is written as though Lim & Putnam is an experiment. It isn’t, its just an analysis of survey data. SO EVERYTHING REPORTED IN THIS STUDY IS STILL JUST CORRELATION, NOT CAUSATION. OH ****.

    Wow, ScienceBlog. I have no idea who you are, but get on your ****.

  5. yes the science behind the religion is to hold the psychological base in such a way that..people ii happy to live..

  6. Let’s look at those numbers again. The headline should read, “Religion helps between 4 and 14% of people feel happier.” That’s not a lot — it’s no panacea.

        • Someone call in a statistician! De we have enough information? Does it depend on what percentage of people who attend church weekly have friends? The article doesn’t give us that information.

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