The secret ingredient (h/t: Azra Raza at 3 Quarks Daily) behind the increased happiness of religious people (something that I speculated about here) is apparently unrelated to religion itself. Assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chaeyoon Lim's study in American Sociological Review explains that "friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier:"
"...the evidence substantiates 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 intimate social networks there," Lim said. [...]
The study's findings are applicable to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). "We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size," said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.
The study (PDF) begins by noting that "Although the positive association between religiosity and life satisfaction is well documented, much theoretical and empirical controversy surrounds the question of how religion actually shapes life satisfaction. [...] Studies diverge as to why people who are committed to their religion, and especially those who regularly attend services, have a higher level of subjective well-being." Here are some other tidbits:
For life satisfaction, what matters is how involved one is with a religious community, not whether that community is Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon. [...] ...congregational friendships appear to account for most of the effect of religious service attendance on life satisfaction. People who frequently attend religious services are more satisfied with their lives not because they have more friends overall (when compared with individuals who do not attend services), but because they have more friends in their congregations.
...strong religious identity makes little difference on life satisfaction unless it is supported by a group of close friends in one's congregation. Among respondents with large numbers of congregational friends, those with strong religious identities are almost twice as likely to say that they are ''extremely'' satisfied than are individuals without a strong religious identity. We find little difference among individuals who do not have close friends. In short, only when people have both a strong sense of religious identity and within-congregation networks does religion lead to greater life satisfaction.
Another interesting finding is that private religious practices, such as prayer and holding religious services at home, are not significantly related to life satisfaction.
Because "it is difficult to think of any non-religious organizations in the United States that are comparable to congregations in scale and scope of membership base, intensity of member participation in collective rituals, and strength of identity that members share," religious groups are "unique among American voluntary organizations as a source of life satisfaction."
These insights should prompt further studies, particularly of the increasing godless contingent.