The link between religion and various psychological states has been the subject of many social scientific studies, many of which have found a connection between self-reported happiness and religious practices.16 Research has suggested that religious faith may be adept in its ability to offer significance and meaning to life, that religious coping mechanisms can improve physical and emotional health, that faith can be a powerful motivating force, and that congregants may receive emotional support from others in their congregations.17
We explored the link between religious service attendance, self-reported religiosity, and affiliation with happiness. Similar to past studies, we find that all of these measures are to varying degrees associated with increased reported levels of happiness.
One of the most plausible theories as to why religion and happiness are connected has to do with the social support that religious communities can provide. Such a network of friends and fellow congregants, sharing common purposes and motivations, is a key way in which happiness is associated with being religious.
The Relationships in America survey results suggest there may be something to this theory. In regression analyses (not shown) that account for other possible explanations18, we find that while all three measures of religion are positively associated with general life satisfaction, frequency of attendance at religious services has a stronger effect on overall happiness than either belonging to an organized religion or self-reported personal religiosity. Greater levels of church attendance predict higher life satisfaction even when we account for how important religious faith is in people’s lives. This result offers tentative evidence that actual integration into a religious support network through attendance at religious services may in part be responsible for the increased happiness observed among religious people.
We also explored whether the religion-happiness connection comes about because religious Americans are more apt to be involved in their communities.19 But even here we still find that those who attend religious services often are happier than their peers with similar levels of involvement in the community. It's possible that there are certain intangibles—things difficult to measure and account for—that are associated with higher levels of religious commitment. Such things may promote greater happiness via offering a more stable sense of purpose, or an assurance of a benevolent higher power directing the events of their lives.
We’re hardly the first to report this. Several other studies have found that the positive effect of religious commitment on happiness persists even among people with similarly-sized friendship networks.20 One study suggested that it is not the size of the network, but the sense of belonging to a group of like-minded people that results in the increased levels of happiness.21
Whatever the case, it appears that religious commitment contributes to happiness beyond simply increased social interaction or support.
18 Control variables included in regressions were self-reported physical health, marital status, age, educational attainment, race/ethnicity, gender, and marital happiness.
19 To control for community involvement we employed an index that adds the number of community activities that respondents selected as activities that they had participated in within the past year. Selection options were volunteering for a charitable or religious organization, attending a political protest or rally, attending a neighborhood association meeting, playing on a sports team, helping with a senior citizen’s center or group, volunteering time working with youth, attending a hobby club, and donating blood.
20 Lim, Chaeyoon and Putnam, Robert. “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction.” American Sociological Review 75 (2010): 914-933; Ellison, Christopher et. al. “Does Religious Commitment Contribute to Individual Life Satisfaction?” Social Forces 68, no. 1 (1989): 100-123.
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