Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Robert Putnam of Harvard University in Boston say it is the social aspects of religion, rather than theology or spirituality, that lead to life satisfaction.
The study, published in American Sociological Review, found 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report they are "extremely satisfied" with their lives -- a 10 on a scale ranging from 1 to 10.
"To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there," Lim says in statement.
Lim, Putnam and colleagues based their study on data from the Faith Matters Study, a panel survey of a representative sample of U.S. adults in 2006 and 2007.
The study's findings are applicable to mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant and Catholics in the United States, the researchers say.
"We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size," says Lim, who notes there were too few Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.