Study: Religious Folks Have a Sunnier Outlook

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In the latest study to link church-going with well-being, researchers find that people who attend religious services regularly are more optimistic and less depressed than their non-religious peers.

Previous research has suggested that people who attend services are also happier and more satisfied and live longer too. (On the other hand, they tend to be fatter.)

The new study, published in the Journal of Religion and Health, included data on 93,000 middle-aged women who participated in the long-running Women’s Health Initiative. Led by Eliezer Schnall, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Yeshiva University in New York City, researchers found that women who attended religious services at least once a week were 56% more likely to score above average on a survey of optimism than non-religious women. They were also 22% less likely to be depressed.

MORE: More Americans Are Praying About Their Health

The study didn’t examine why people who go to a church (or synagogue, temple or mosque) have a sunnier outlook — it could be that naturally optimistic people are those who tend to attend religious services — but the findings fall in line with previous studies that suggest that the psychological benefits of religious practice may stem from the social interaction it involves.

As Healthland’s Alice Park reported last December:

[A]ccording 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.

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.

“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,” Lim said in a statement at the time.

MORE: Religion’s Secret to Happiness: It’s Friends, Not Faith

Indeed, the new study also found that regular attendees of religious services were 28% more likely to report having positive social support than people who didn’t practice religion. The authors note further that older women, the group the study focused on, have been found in past studies to be more social at services and to benefit more from them.

Maybe it’s the socializing that also helps explain why religious people may live longer and why they tend to gain more weight — those church socials involve a lot of eating.

MORE: Recipe for Longevity: No Smoking, Lots of Friends

It’s not clear whether regular trips to a house of worship would benefit younger folks or men equally, but in general, religious practice is known to ease anxiety and encourage a more positive worldview. If you aren’t big on organized religion, though, take heart: participating in other regular social activities and common-interest clubs can offer many of the same social benefits.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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