Sociologists’ claim: interactions with others is how religion leads to greater life satisfaction

A new study in the American Sociological Review looks at why religious people have higher levels of life satisfaction. The conclusion: it is about the networks that form among people who attend services.

Here is a short description of the study:

Many studies have uncovered a link between religion and life satisfaction, but all of the research faced a “chicken-and-egg problem,” Lim said. Does religion make people happy, or do happy people become religious? And if religion is the cause of life satisfaction, what is responsible — spirituality, social contacts, or some other aspect of religion?

Lim and his colleague, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, tackled both questions with their study. In 2006, they contacted a nationally representative sample of 3,108 American adults via phone and asked them questions about their religious activities, beliefs and social networks. In 2007, they called the same group back and got 1,915 of them to answer the same batch of questions again.

The surveys showed that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people…

But the satisfaction couldn’t be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God’s love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation.

A few thoughts based on the description of this study:

1. This would seem to support arguments within faith traditions, such as evangelicalism, about the need for religious community.

2. The study suggests these friendships form around “a sense of belonging to a moral faith community.” This sounds like Durkheim and his ideas about people coming together and forming a collective.

3. This sounds like a worthwhile study because it helps explain the causal mechanism between greater life satisfaction and religion: it is about friendships. But, this doesn’t say much about how these friendships lead to greater life satisfaction. Is it because there is someone to share one’s burdens with? Is it because these friends provide spiritual guidance?

4. Are there substitutes for this kind of boost to life satisfaction? That is, are there functionally equivalent things people could do to get the same benefits that religious people get from friendships with people who share their faith?

5. The findings were primarily about the large American religious groups: “Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants.” Would these findings hold for other groups in America? Would they hold in other countries?