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New Research: Religion Linked to Happiness and Good Citizenship

A new report from Pew Research Center suggests that being actively involved in a religion has a positive impact on people and perhaps even society in general:

This analysis finds that in the U.S. and many other countries around the world, regular participation in a religious community clearly is linked with higher levels of happiness and civic engagement (specifically, voting in elections and joining community groups or other voluntary organizations).

 Goals and Methodology

For the purposes of the study, Pew grouped people into three categories: actively religious, inactively religious and religiously unaffiliated. Researchers defined “actively religious” people as those who identify with a religion and go to religious services a minimum of once a month. “Inactively religious” people also identify with a religion, but attend services less than once a month. The “religiously unaffiliated” don’t associate with or participate in any religion.

According to the report, Pew “set out to determine whether religion has clearly positive, negative or mixed associations.” Researchers relied on eight indicators to determine the answer to that question. Two pertain to civic involvement and five to individual health. The eighth asked people to assess their own happiness.

Researchers gathered this information from international surveys conducted since 2010 by Pew Research Center, the World Values Survey Association, and the International Social Survey Programme.

Pew notes that its report cannot be “truly global” because it relies on information from “Christian-majority nations.” One reason why is that to conduct the research, Pew needed countries with sizable communities of people who are either active, inactive or unaffiliated in order to evaluate them fairly with the same survey data. Another reason for relying primarily on Christian-majority nations is that countries with higher populations of people who practice, say, Hinduism or Buddhism, would be less relevant to the research because those religions have less of a focus on attending religious services.

Notable Findings

Some key findings from Pew’s study include that adults who are actively involved in a religion are:

  • More likely to volunteer in other, non-religious groups
  • Less likely to smoke or drink
  • More likely to vote
  • More likely to describe themselves as “very happy”

There was one area Pew evaluated where actively religious people did not have clear benefits compared to the inactive or the unaffiliated: exercise and obesity. After adjusting for demographic factors, there was no significant difference in the exercise habits and obesity rates among the three groups.

Overall, the report found negligible differences between the inactive and the unaffiliated:

When there are well-being differences between the actively religious and all others, they almost always favor the actively religious; gaps between the inactively religious and the unaffiliated are more modest, and sometimes go in both directions.

The report’s writers caution that association does not equal causation. While there is enough evidence, for example, to indicate that overall happiness and religious activity are connected, this evidence does not constitute proof that religion leads to happiness. Simply from looking at the research, it’s just as possible that happiness leads to religion. It’s also possible that other factors in people’s lives apart from religion are contributing to their happiness. According to the writers, “The exact nature of the connections between religious participation, happiness, civic engagement and health remains unclear and needs further study.”