TUESDAY, Dec. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Regular churchgoers may lead more satisfying lives than stay-at-home folks because they create a network of close friends who provide important support, a new study suggests.

Conducted at the University of Wisconsin, the researchers found that 28 percent of people who attend church weekly say they are "extremely satisfied" with life as opposed to only 20 percent who never attend services. But the satisfaction comes from participating in a religious congregation along with close friends, rather than a spiritual experience, the study found.

Regular churchgoers who have no close friends in their congregations are no more likely to be very satisfied with their lives than those who never attend church, according to the research.

Study co-author Chaeyoon Lim said it's long been recognized that churchgoers report more satisfaction with their lives. But, "scholars have been debating the reason," he said.

"Do happier people go to church? Or does going to church make people happier?" asked Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

This study, published in the December issue of the American Sociological Review, appears to show that going to church makes people more satisfied with life because of the close friendships established there.

Feeling close to God, prayer, reading scripture and other religious rituals were not associated with a prediction of greater satisfaction with life. Instead, in combination with a strong religious identity, the more friends at church that participants reported, the greater the likelihood they felt strong satisfaction with life.

The study is based on a phone survey of more than 3,000 Americans in 2006, and a follow-up survey with 1,915 respondents in 2007. Most of those surveyed were mainline Protestants, Catholics and Evangelicals, but a small number of Jews, Muslims and other non-traditional Christian churches was also included.

"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.

"Religious identity is what is driving all these other factors," said Koenig. Social involvement is important, "but so is faith."

Lim said the data show that only the number of close friends at church correlates with higher satisfaction with life. The study acknowledged the importance of religious identity, as well as number of friends, suggesting that the two factors reinforce each other.

"Social networks forged in congregations and strong religious identities are the key variables that mediate the positive connection between religion and life satisfaction," the study concluded.

Lim said he wanted to examine whether social networks in organizations such as Rotary Clubs, the Masons or other civic volunteer groups could have a similar impact, but it might be difficult.

"It's hard to imagine any other organization that engages as many people as religion, and that has similar shared identity and social activities," said Lim. "It's not easy to think of anything that's equivalent to that."

More information

The Nemours Foundation has information on spirituality and health.