In the U.S. and other countries, participation in a congregation is a key factor
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, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of survey data from the United States and more than two dozen other countries.
Religiously active people also tend to smoke and drink less, but they are not healthier in terms of exercise frequency and rates of obesity. Nor, in most countries, are highly religious people more likely to rate themselves as being in very good overall health – though the U.S. is among the possible exceptions.
Many previous studies have found positive associations between religion and health in the United States. Researchers have shown, for example, that Americans who regularly attend religious services tend to live longer.1 Other studies have focused on narrower health benefits, such as how religion may help breast cancer patients cope with stress. 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. (For more on previous studies of religion and health, see this sidebar.)
Taking a broad, international approach to this complicated topic, Pew Research Center researchers set out to determine whether religion has clearly positive, negative or mixed associations with eight different indicators of individual and societal well-being available from international surveys conducted over the past decade. Specifically, this report examines survey respondents’ self-assessed levels of happiness, as well as five measures of individual health and two measures of civic participation.2
By dividing people into three categories, the study also seeks to isolate whether religious affiliation or religious participation – or both, or neither – is associated with happiness, health and civic engagement. The three categories are: “Actively religious,” made up of people who identify with a religious group and say they attend services at least once a month (sometimes called “actives”); “inactively religious,” defined as those who claim a religious identity but attend services less often (also called “inactives”); and “religiously unaffiliated,” people who do not identify with any organized religion (sometimes called “nones”).3
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). This may suggest that societies with declining levels of religious engagement, like the U.S., could be at risk for declines in personal and societal well-being. But the analysis finds comparatively little evidence that religious affiliation, by itself, is associated with a greater likelihood of personal happiness or civic involvement.