"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.
This raises all sorts of questions. Does the ability to share values and experiences with others of similar belief deliver the biggest benefit (in this life anyway) from religious belief? Do religious people who attend services regularly have more friends on average?
There's the aspect of competition between religions: How do the religious denominations and major religions compare in terms of the opportunities they create for the formation of friendships? Could a church or other religious institution compete better by adopting practices that increase social interactions? If people are all sitting there listening to the preacher they are not relating to each other.
Finally, does this result hold any useful insights for companies? Could companies have more motivated employees by forming people into work teams that encourage friendship formation?