By Adam S. McHugh
Presbyterian Minster and Patheos Expert
A new sociological study reveals that churchgoers are happy, but I can’t decide if I’m happy about that. In a study published in the December American Sociological Review, two eminent researchers, Robert Putman of Harvard University and Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin, discovered a direct relationship between happiness and church participation. Their study is consistent with previous surveys that people who attend church tend to be happier than those who don’t, but what is new in their findings is the source of that happiness.
What Putnam and Lim discovered is that the happiest churchgoers are those who have a significant number of close friendships within their congregations. Frequency of church attendance, in itself, does not guarantee a sense of happiness, nor do a person’s deeply held beliefs or the strength of their prayer life and sense of connection to God. The equation of the study is simple: irrespective of other factors, the more close friendships people have within their church communities, the happier they are. Those people with 10 friends in their church are almost twice as happy as those who have no friends in their church.
I have to admit that I am conflicted about this finding. As a pastor, I of course want churchgoers to be happy and I hope that their happiness will be appealing and contagious to outsiders. For too long churchgoing people have been burdened with the stereotype of the gloomy, serious, penitent believer that contradicts the “life abundant” that Jesus offers us. The cause of my ambivalence is that I am an introvert, and I sometimes find the social expectations in churches to be burdensome rather than joyful.
I always have to qualify when I call myself an introvert, because of the baggage that term carries. A precise definition of introvert does not include “shy” or “antisocial” or “timid.” Some introverts are those things, but so are some extroverts. As an introvert, I find energy in solitude. I enjoy people and measured doses of social interaction, but life in the outer world drains me and I have to retreat into my inner world to be renewed. Some of my happiest moments are spent in the workings of my inner life.
As an introvert, there are a few things that trouble me about Putnam and Lim’s findings. First, the happy people they describe sound a lot like extroverts, those people who enjoy many friendships and have much energy and motivation for socializing. We introverts treasure our friendships as well, but we have high standards for whom we call close friends and we generally have fewer of them than extroverts. The findings of the study stir up a fear somewhere in my subconscious that introverts like myself are destined to be less happy than extroverts. I do take solace, however, in my suspicion that the nature of the survey led to an under-representation of introverts. The researchers base their happiness findings on phone surveys, when most introverts I know are happiest to let voice mail handle their calls.
Second, I am disturbed that the church portrayed by this study sounds like little more than a social club. The study subordinates personal devotion to friendship, but, in my view, the two are inextricably linked. I am concerned that the church too often encourages socialization at the expense of spiritual formation. It reminds me of what psychology professor Richard Beck said about church culture: in many cases “sociability is mistaken for spirituality,” that is, the more social you are, then the more spiritual you are and the closer you are to God. As a result, extroversion is rewarded in many churches, especially those in the evangelical tradition, since those who participate in the most church activities and are acquainted with the most people are thought to be the most spiritually mature. And now, they may come to be viewed as the most happy.
Third, I am wary that this study on happiness will result in churches adding even more activities to an already crowded church agenda. The researchers suggest that, in light of their findings, church leaders should devote more time to the social aspects of church life. I fear that will mean more programs, more small groups, and more social events, and our model of pastor will inexorably move towards church cruise director. While I understand and value the intention behind these social structures, too often we in the church have treated joining as a shortcut for belonging and intimacy. Filling our calendars, however, does not guarantee these things and in fact can move us farther away from what we truly want.
Spiritual friendships are one of God’s greatest gifts, and this study does remind us of how significant those relationships are for our sense of fulfillment and happiness. My hope is that the church will encourage all of us to receive that gift, while recognizing that not everyone embraces it in the same way and at the same speed.
Adam S. McHugh is a writer, pastor, spiritual director, and the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. This article is part of the Patheos Expert Series on Patheos.com.