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Want to Get Happy? Go to Church

Such is the conclusion of a report in this month's American Sociological Review.

C. S. Lewis said that Christianity was about achieving perfection in God, not happiness. Even so, a survey in this month's American Sociological Review (ASR) suggests that a "high rate of life satisfaction" is at least a byproduct of the Christian life.

Researchers Chaeyoon Lim, sociologist at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, and Robert Putnam, author most recently of American Grace and most famously of Bowling Alone, found that people who frequently attend church and other places of worship are happier than those who attend less frequently. Lim and Putman say respondents' happiness comes from building friendships in a close-knit social circle around common religious beliefs — not necessarily from the content of said beliefs. "Our evidence shows 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 social networks there," Lim said.

Lim and Putnam surveyed some 3,000 Americans from 2006 to 2007. A majority of participants were evangelical and mainline Protestants and Catholics. About one-third of participants who attend church frequently and have at least 3-5 close friends there said they were "extremely satisfied" with their lives. That percentage jumps to 40 percent for frequent churchgoers who report having 11 or more close friends at church. Tragically, 15 percent of frequent churchgoers reported having not one close friend at church. According to the survey, friendless churchgoers are less happy than those who are not religious and do not attend church at all, as well as those who are very religious but do not attend church.

Other nuggets of interest:

– 28 percent of people who go to religious services weekly will say they are extremely satisfied with their lives, compared with less than 20 percent of people who never go to such services.

– People who said they "personally experience the presence of God" and who "personally feel God's love in life" do not report more happiness than those who do not.

– If you compare two people with the same number of close friends in life – both inside the church and out – those with stronger relationships in church report being happier.

An abstract of the Lim and Putnam's article is posted on ASR's website. For a theological treatment of the topic, look for a review of Ellen Charry's God and the Art of Happiness in the December issue of Christianity Today and on CT's website next week.

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