A new surprise study from the Pew Research Center shows that people who regularly attend religious services report overall general happiness with life.
"People who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of religious groups," Pew reports based on analysis of survey data from the United States and more than two dozen other countries.
Despite reports of overall general happiness, however, the study did not show religious people have general good health. Other than avoiding certain activities like drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco, highly religious people do not rate themselves in good health overall, although some of that might stem from the fact that religious people tend to be older in years. With that said, Pew notes that past research shows that "Americans who regularly attend religious services tend to live longer." The study also showed that religiosity had tangential health benefits, such as helping cancer patients cope with high levels of stress. Religious people also reported a high level of civic engagement, such as voting and community participation.
"On the other hand, there are also studies that have not found a robust relationship between religion and better health in the U.S., and even some studies that have shown negative relationships, such as higher rates of obesity among highly religious Americans," Pew reports.
The study divided people into three different categories based on levels of religiosity: affiliation, participation, or both. Based on self-assessment, people who had a religious affiliation and attended religious services reported higher levels of happiness and civic engagement.
"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," Pew reports, adding that "the analysis finds comparatively little evidence that religious affiliation, by itself, is associated with a greater likelihood of personal happiness or civic involvement."
Pew also noted that declining rates of religiosity in nations like the United States could be one of the causes for the overall decline in personal and societal well-being. Out of the 26 countries studied, religious people reported an overall better sense of health in Taiwan, Mexico, and the United States.
While the study does say that religious people report a higher sense of happiness, Pew could not determine if religiosity was the direct cause, saying that further studies would have to be conducted before any determinations could be made.
"Whatever the explanation may be, more than one-third of actively religious U.S. adults (36%) describe themselves as very happy, compared with just a quarter of both inactive and unaffiliated Americans," reports Pew. "The gaps are often striking: In Australia, for example, 45% of actively religious adults say they are very happy, compared with 32% of inactives and 33% of the unaffiliated. And there is no country in which the data show that actives are significantly less happy than others."
Read the full report here.