Religion can be good for your health, and especially your mental health, according to the latest studies, which show that church-goers are happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who don’t attend services. But what exactly is it about religion that is so beneficial to health?
Some might argue that it is the power of faith in a being or power beyond ourselves. But according to a study led by Chaeyoon Lim, a sociology professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, the reason religion makes us happy may have more to do with friends than with faith. (More on Time.com: Retirement May Make You Happier, Depending on Where You Retire)
Using data from the Faith Matters Study, a survey of U.S. adults conducted in 2006 and 2007, Lim and his colleagues found that 33% of those who attended religious services every week and reported having close friends at church said they were extremely satisfied with their lives, while only 19% of those who went to church but had no close connections to the congregation reported the same satisfaction.
As Lim noted in a statement describing his findings:
“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.”
The results support the idea that friends and acquaintances can have a powerful, even contagious effect on our health. In other work conducted by Dr. Nicholas Christakis at Harvard Medical School and John Fowler of University of California, San Diego, it’s clear that our social network, regardless of how close or distant we are to the people in them, can influence our health. Christakis and Fowler showed that even people separated from you by up to three degrees can influence your weight, your happiness, or even whether you quit smoking or are prone to loneliness. (More on Time.com: How Feelings of Gratitude Breed Happiness and Well-Being)
A version of that idea of social connectedness may explain Lim’s findings, which were consistent across Protestant, evangelical and Catholic religions; they applied to Mormons and Jewish believers as well, despite their smaller sample size in the study. Lim stresses that the sense of community that religion promotes is an important part of helping people to feel involved and worthwhile, and therefore may contribute to an overall sense of happiness.