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God(s) Make You Happy, But How?

September 12, 2011

Buddy Jesus Magic: The Gathering CardWelcome to Sociofaithful! How do I know this is your first time here? Well, it’s either that or you were crazy enough to wade through the first post however many months ago. Trust me, you probably shouldn’t.

So just to review why I’m here:
1)Sociologists say interesting and useful things. I hope. Otherwise, it would be rather silly of me to devote my life to it.
2)Said sociologists are unfortunately liable to say aforementioned things in jargony statisticalese in obscure journals that you will never see outside of an institute of higher education.
3)Useful things are of limited value if they are inaccessible to end users. Seriously limited. Not that someone entering the 20th grade should be down on knowledge for its own sake, but I do have a slight preference for useful things to be used.

All that is to say again, Welcome! My goal is to interpret current sociological research related to religion (with an acknowledged bias toward Christian-related research) and translate it so it is actually usable to the people who could use it, i.e. pastors, lay leaders, seminary leaders, and pretty much anyone involved in the (little c) catholic church. Oh, and I’ll try not to take myself too seriously.

So… “Who’s your buddy?” – Buddy Jesus

That’s pretty much what a whole highly-fashionable group of sociologists is asking people these days. It’s called Social Network Theory and I’ll write more about it as I go, but basically it’s founded on the idea that the people we associate with (especially as friends) matter. This is true in at least two ways:

  1. You can tell quite a bit about people (particularly if you’re dealing with large samples of them, as sociologists are wont to do) by who they interact with and how. Sometimes, you can even predict to a greater or lesser degree how people are likely to act in certain situations based on their social networks.
  2. We are affected by the people we interact with. Duh. To one extent or another, people rub off on each other, even the ones we don’t care for as much.

One particular noteworthy nerd in this department is Robert Putnam. His book Bowling Alone argued that Americans have become much more solitary in how they spend their time, both working and leisure. More recently, he and his co-conspirator Chaeyoon Lim have spent their time examining social networks in religious contexts. While they’ve published a book on the topic now called American Grace that you could (and should) probably find at your local library, they also do things like publish articles in disciplinary journals related to their research. They have to look smart somehow.

Thus, I finally get to the stated purpose, i.e. interpreting social science data for real people. The article I’m focusing on can be found here, although:

  1. I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart and
  2. You probably can’t read very much unless you’re at a University with a subscription.

Here’s the gist of what they did: Lim and Putnam used panel data (that means they survey the same people more than once over time) to try and figure out how the well-known connection between religion and happiness works. To put it simply, people keep finding that people who say they go to church more also say they are more satisfied with their lives.

People have come up with a bunch of ideas (hypotheses) about why this is. One is that faith gives people a way to interpret the world going on around them. Another is that strong personal religious practices improve people’s self-esteem. One that’s very current is that the social connections made in churches serve as a support network that helps people both directly (by providing access to resources) and indirectly (think “Lean on Me”).

So here’s the (hopefully) interesting parts about what they found. First of all, your social network does play a part in how your religious involvement plays out in happiness, and it has more to do with how many close friends you have in your faith community than with what particular brand (or denomination) of faith it is. In fact, belonging to a church without having friends there makes you statistically less likely to be happy. This should make intuitive sense to people who have been to a few different churches.

But wait… there’s more! The authors write:

“Only when people have both a strong sense of religious identity and within-congregation networks does religion lead to greater life satisfaction… The effects of religious social networks [further] do not depend on religious similarity among close social ties, but on regular encounters and shared religious experiences with congregational friends.”

What exactly does all this mean? Worshiping and participating in Bible Study with people you are close to makes you happier, whether or not you agree with them. In other words, when  you know what you believe and hang out with others who do in a way that you can feel you belong, even if they don’t believe the exact same way you do, it improves your life.

Put simply, faith matters, and it matters most in the context of shared seeking. According to this paradigm, ecumenical partnership can build up identity and belonging just as well as hanging out with a bunch of like-minded confessionalists. Also, it presents a challenge to congregations to genuinely seek to engage every person where they are, because being at the periphery looking in can be much lonelier than just going about life without caring about church.

Of course, the only value statement here is a survey question about how happy you are with your life. But in a sense that provides a complementary approach. What you’re seeing thus is less an artifact of someone’s convictions as to right and wrong as just a seeking to understand how something works.

If you are a person of faith, of course, you could easily read more into these and understanding them through the lens of your faith. In fact, if you don’t, it may not matter at all and will become just more trivia. But there it is. Hopefully, you find it helpful, though-provoking… something.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for this…I’m going to add your blog to my feed so keep writin’.


    • Thanks, Troy. Yours is refreshing too. While I won’t be adding as often to Faithful Change now, you would probably appreciate that too, as a person of faith.

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