Are happy churchgoers good news?

By Adam S. McHughPresbyterian Minster and Patheos Expert A new sociological study reveals that churchgoers are happy, but I can’t … Continued

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

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  • TransformingSeminarian

    “The researchers base their happiness findings on phone surveys, when most introverts I know are happiest to let voice mail handle their calls.”Actually, I refuse to respond to phone surveys entirely. No question but that this would skew the results against introverts like me (or, at least, people like me)

  • lepidopteryx

    So does making friends at church increase people’s happiness, or do naturally upbeat people tend to make more friends? I like the people in the various spiritual communities in which I particiapte. If spending time with them was notpleasant for me, I wouldn’t do it.

  • slowe111

    The essence and conclusion of the study is that people with more friends ( in church or not) are happier. period. Church serves as a facilitator to this and god-beief is falsely given the credit. Since there is no god, Belief in god is belief in an imaginary friend…hence another friend. Let’s all grow up and develop real-life friends instead of imaginiary ones. religion is folk therapy for dependant, immature adults.

  • beautiful-mind


  • qqbDEyZW

    When the Churches get back to doing God’s work there will be people to follow. Right now it’s more about politics and money with little to do with the word of God. The Christian Religion in Americans has been following Satan while being called God. Jesus warned this would happen and it we’re seeing it today. Satan took the Oval Office when Satan told Bush to become President. While Bush used God’s name people blindly followed believing it was the truth. After 8 years we see it was Satan and now he has gotten elected Law Makers to coninue. Obama is wise to stay far away and get out of DC as much as possible as it’s infested with evil Republicans/Tea Party and even Democrats.

  • VisionFromAfar

    Oh, qqbDEyZW, if only you actually knew who Satan was/is, you’d know why I’m laughing at you right now. Here’s a hint : The original Hebrew term, satan, is a noun from a verb meaning primarily to, “obstruct, oppose,” as it is found in Numbers 22:22, 1 Samuel 29:4, Psalms 109:6.[4] Ha-Satan is traditionally translated as “the accuser,” or “the adversary.” The definite article “ha-”, English “the”, is used to show that this is a title bestowed on a being, versus the name of a being. Thus this being would be referred to as “the Satan.” – From the Harpar Collins Study Bible.And so: HAHAHAHA

  • eezmamata

    Churches are shedding butts in the pews because more and more people just can’t buy that crap any more.Sure, claim the churches aren’t doing their jobs, that the religious leadership is spending too much time doing meth with gay hookers or hiding pedophiles .. whatever.Your story is crap, what you believe is crap, you are ridiculous. Add that into your equation, see what the results are.

  • wiki-truth

    FOODRemember; PROCRASTiNATION iS THE THEiF OF Time. So keep busy if Ye can (Employed or Unemployed)!IMPORTANT: Rich, Middle-class or Poor, If YE hath All these “4-Tetra-Needs“ then Ye hath No Worry’s on this Blesseth Holy Cosmic Miraculous, & zero biblical Sin’th, S.pace-S.hip Planet EARTH, aka S.S. GAiA, S.S. GEOiD, S.S. TELLUSng something!BEHOLD:

  • GabrielRockman

    “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.”Its not that simple. Its an obvious confusion of cause and effect. People who are happier with their church are more likely to try to form close friendships with others at the church. This survey proves nothing.

  • letitbe

    What does G_D want from Church?

  • garoth

    As a pastor, I would also be concerned about this “happiness” quotient. I have too many people who assume that the purpose of church is to make one happy and well-adjusted (I have had many people tell me so). If that is so, let’s begin by discarding the prophets, Jesus, and everyone else in the Bible that makes a difference. Let’s also do away with a lot of Jesus’ and Paul’s sayings, which seem to indicate that knowing God or going to church won’t make you happier – just more aware of the truth and of God (the “health and wealth” people are free to disagree here, but I’ve got most of the Bible on my side). And, of course, let’s just sing the old hymns (whether they are theologically sound or not), and feed them whatever drivel people want to hear (how about texts from the “Chicken Soup” series – or am I pushing buttons here already!).Christian fellowship is an important part of church; but the church is not a social club. The reason for that fellowship is much like the reason for AA – to keep us accountable, and support us in following Christ, as Hebrews says, for “the building of the body.” That can be fun – but it can also be hard, when we are called to account by the body.Happiness is not a good measure of the spiritual health of the body. Love of God and love of our fellow human beings are.