TUESDAY, Dec. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Regular churchgoers may lead
more satisfying lives than stay-at-home folks because they create a
network of close friends who provide important support, a new study
Conducted at the University of Wisconsin, the researchers found
that 28 percent of people who attend church weekly say they are
"extremely satisfied" with life as opposed to only 20 percent who
never attend services. But the satisfaction comes from
participating in a religious congregation along with close friends,
rather than a spiritual experience, the study found.
Regular churchgoers who have no close friends in their
congregations are no more likely to be very satisfied with their
lives than those who never attend church, according to the
Study co-author Chaeyoon Lim said it's long been recognized that
churchgoers report more satisfaction with their lives. But,
"scholars have been debating the reason," he said.
"Do happier people go to church? Or does going to church make people happier?" asked Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
This study, published in the December issue of the
American Sociological Review, appears to show that going to church makes people more satisfied with life because of the close friendships established there.
Feeling close to God, prayer, reading scripture and other
religious rituals were not associated with a prediction of greater
satisfaction with life. Instead, in combination with a strong
religious identity, the more friends at church that participants
reported, the greater the likelihood they felt strong satisfaction
The study is based on a phone survey of more than 3,000
Americans in 2006, and a follow-up survey with 1,915 respondents in
2007. Most of those surveyed were mainline Protestants, Catholics
and Evangelicals, but a small number of Jews, Muslims and other
non-traditional Christian churches was also included.
"Even in that short time, we observed that people who were not going to church but then started to go more often reported an improvement in how they felt about life satisfaction," said Lim.
He said that people have a deep need for belonging to something
"greater than themselves." The experience of sharing rituals and
activities with close friends in a congregation makes this "become
real, as opposed to something more abstract and remote," he
In addition to church attendance, respondents were asked how
many close friends they had in and outside of their congregations,
and questions about their health, education, income, work and
whether their religious identity was very important to their "sense
Respondents who said they experienced "God's presence" were no
more likely to report feeling greater satisfaction with their lives
than those who did not. Only the number of close friends in their
congregations and having a strong religious identity predicted
feeling extremely satisfied with life.
One reason may be that "friends who attend religious services
together give religious identity a sense of reality," the authors
The study drew a skeptical response from one expert.
"Some of their conclusions are a little shaky," said Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
The study showed that religious identity is just as important as
how many friends a person has in their congregation, said Koenig,
also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the
The way the data was analyzed ensured that the spiritual factors
(prayer, feeling God's love, etc.) would not be significant because
people with a strong religious identity were controlled for, or not
included in the analysis, according to Koenig.
"Religious identity is what is driving all these other factors," said Koenig. Social involvement is important, "but so is faith."
Lim said the data show that only the number of close friends at
church correlates with higher satisfaction with life. The study
acknowledged the importance of religious identity, as well as
number of friends, suggesting that the two factors reinforce each
"Social networks forged in congregations and strong religious identities are the key variables that mediate the positive connection between religion and life satisfaction," the study concluded.
Lim said he wanted to examine whether social networks in
organizations such as Rotary Clubs, the Masons or other civic
volunteer groups could have a similar impact, but it might be
"It's hard to imagine any other organization that engages as many people as religion, and that has similar shared identity and social activities," said Lim. "It's not easy to think of anything that's equivalent to that."
The Nemours Foundation has information on
spirituality and health.