"Even in that short time, we observed that people who were not going to church but then started to go more often reported an improvement in how they felt about life satisfaction," said Lim.
He said that people have a deep need for belonging to something "greater than themselves." The experience of sharing rituals and activities with close friends in a congregation makes this "become real, as opposed to something more abstract and remote," he added.
In addition to church attendance, respondents were asked how many close friends they had in and outside of their congregations, and questions about their health, education, income, work and whether their religious identity was very important to their "sense of self."
Respondents who said they experienced "God's presence" were no more likely to report feeling greater satisfaction with their lives than those who did not. Only the number of close friends in their congregations and having a strong religious identity predicted feeling extremely satisfied with life.
One reason may be that "friends who attend religious services together give religious identity a sense of reality," the authors said.
The study drew a skeptical response from one expert.
"Some of their conclusions are a little shaky," said Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
The study showed that religious identity is just as important as how many friends a person has in their congregation, said Koenig, also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the university.
The way the data was analyzed ensured that the spiritual factors (prayer, feeling God's love, etc.) would not be significant because people with a strong religious identity were controlled for, or not included in the analysis, according to Koenig.
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