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Faith Factor: Is a Religious Life a Happier One?

Faith Factor: Is a Religious Life a Happier One?

by Albert L. Winseman

When it comes to life satisfaction, those who are actively religious appear to have an edge over those who are not.

Gallup's annual survey of congregational engagement, conducted in October and November 2003, asked 1,000 members of a church, synagogue, or other faith community and 500 nonmembers*: "Using a five-point scale, where ‘5' means strongly agree and ‘1' means strongly disagree, how much do you agree with the following statement: ‘I am completely satisfied with my life'?"

A solid majority of those interviewed are completely satisfied -- 72% rate this statement with a "4" or a "5" (a Gallup Poll of U.S. adults conducted in December 2003 also found high levels of contentment -- see "A Nation of Happy People" in Related Items). A closer look at the respondents who answered "5" (strongly agree) in the October and November 2003 survey suggests a connection between religious faith and life satisfaction. Among members of faith communities, 77% give the life satisfaction question a "4" or a "5"; the number drops to 62% among those who say they are not members of faith communities.

Worship Attendance

What's more, those who say they have attended a worship service in the last week are considerably more likely to "strongly agree" that they are completely satisfied with their lives than those who have not -- 45% to 33%. This suggests that for Americans, worship attendance may not be an obligation, but a meaningful experience in their lives. The regular expression of religious faith appears to positively affect individuals' attitudes about the quality of their lives.

Giving

Members who give more than $2,000 annually to their faith communities are more likely to be completely satisfied with their lives than those who give less than $2,000, despite the fact that this poll shows no variation in life satisfaction by household income. It seems that people who give significantly to their congregations gain a sense of satisfaction from their giving -- they aren't giving begrudgingly out of a sense of obligation. The old adage "give not until it hurts, but until it feels good" appears to have some truth to it.

Protestants and Catholics

With all the negativity that has swirled around the Catholic Church recently, it is interesting and encouraging to see that life satisfaction among Catholics is higher than it has been in the previous two years. In fact, while responses among Protestants have remained relatively stable, those among Catholics now skew more positively than they did in 2001.

This finding might indicate that Catholics are relieved to have the worst of their church's scandals behind them (see "Does the Catholic Church Still Need Saving?" in Related Items), or it could mean that while the scandals have rocked Catholics' faith in the church's hierarchy, they have not affected most Catholics personally. It remains to be seen whether this is a temporary lift in Catholic life satisfaction or the beginning of a trend.

Bottom Line

Those who live out various practices of their faith -- like regular worship attendance and financial support of their congregations -- have a more positive outlook on life than those who do not. And interestingly, Catholics are slightly more satisfied with their lives than Protestants -- a survey finding that bears watching in the future.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, and 500 nonmembers, conducted in October and November 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.6%.

As Global Practice Leader for Faith Communities, Dr. Winseman leads Gallup's research and consulting services that assist faith communities in helping their members become more engaged. He is a co-author of the new book, Living Your Strengths, written to help members discover and use their talents and strengths in their congregations. Before joining Gallup, he was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for 15 years.

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