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Friendships are secret ingredients of religions

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Godliness spawns happiness, but not for theological or spiritual reasons. Accumulating evidence shows deism and personal satisfaction are inextricably linked, but it is not communal devotion to divinities that is primarily responsible. Rather, the good feelings flow from powerful friendships that develop among congregation members.

Research confirms that a primary soul-soothing advantage of group worship is the comforting camaraderie that it engenders, regardless of religious denomination.

"Religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they regularly attend religious services and build social networks in their congregations," report Chaeyoom Lim at the University of Wisconsin and Robert Putnam at Harvard University. "It is the social aspect of religion, rather than theology or spirituality, that leads to life satisfaction."

According to studies by Andrew Clark of the Institute for the Study of Labour and Orsolya Lelkes at the European Centre for Social Welfare and Policy, religious people have "better life satisfaction" compared with non-religious individuals.

"They have higher levels of satisfaction... (because) religion acts as a cushion against personal disaster," the researchers report. "The insurance role of religion is buffering the well-being aspect of stressful life events and the ensuing economic and social implications."

"Religious behaviour is particularly correlated with individual life satisfaction (because) religious people of all denominations suffer less psychological harm from (misfortune)," they explained.

According to researcher David Meyers at Hope College, highly religious individuals "are twice as likely as those low in spiritual commitment to declare themselves very happy."

A University of Illinois study suggests people who engage in religious activities dominate the upper 10 per cent of very happy people.

Research by Lim and Putnam shows one-third of those who attend religious services weekly, and have "three to five close friends in their congregations," confirm extreme satisfaction with their lives. Only 19 per cent of those who attend weekly services and do not have close friends in their congregations report extreme life satisfaction. Even irregular attendance, so long as there are three to five close friends in the congregation, generates elevated satisfaction.

"Friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happy," the researchers conclude. "Overtly religious factors, such as theology and private religious practices, do not predict greater life satisfaction."

The researchers explained friendships developed within congregations "anchor a strong sense of belonging" that is vital to personal contentment. Divine reverence within congregations is a catalyst that helps to forge a "strong religious identity" that is important to within-congregation friendships, they added.

Several studies suggest that over 50 per cent of North Americans believe religion is central to their sense of personal well-being. A University of California study confirms "congregational friends" are indispensable to self-satisfaction in religious individuals.

Meanwhile, Clark and Lelkes's studies show a desire for a common theological mindset within a community is universal. Such a commonness of belief ideology seems to promote a more solid feeling of group identity.

"Religious people like to live in regions where their own religion is dominant," the researchers suggested.

Robert Alison is a Victoria-based

zoologist and freelance writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2011 A11

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