Why religious people are happier, and how to share the joy

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The latest Office for National Statistics survey seems to confirm what similar ones have already shown: religious people are happier.

To be precise, over four years, religious people scored their life satisfaction at 7.53 out of 10 and their happiness at 7.38. People with no religion scored their happiness at only 7.22. Compared with other faiths, Christians are mid-table at 7.47; Muslims are only 7.33, while Hindus are a cheerful 7.57.

The temptation is to argue this proves religion makes you happy and satisfied with life. It's not so, of course. For one thing, it might not be the content of faith – which all religious adherents would say is pretty important – that matters, but being part of a supportive community, which religions often provide. Another is that it might be happy, cheerful people who naturally like going to the church, or mosque, or gurdwara; if you're naturally miserable, you're more likely to stay at home.

So do happiness and faith have nothing to do with each other? At one level, no: at least, there's no causal link. But that's not to say the Church has nothing to contribute to how people feel about themselves, or can't do anything to make life better for them – or, when it gets things wrong, a good deal worse. So here are five tips for churches about happiness.

1. Raise your sights a little. The Bible doesn't have much to say about happiness, at least not in the bluebirds-twittering, everything-in-the-garden-is-rosy sense. It does talk about godliness, righteousness and that sort of thing. The paradox is that if we spend our lives trying to find happiness, we probably won't; while if we spend our lives trying to be godly, we'll find that we're happy as well. Seek first the kingdom of God... (Matthew 6.33). Churches do best when they focus on Him.

2. Help people broaden their horizons.  We're happy when we're learning things, having new experiences and storing up things to think and talk about. Encouraging people to take a walk in the country or start learning the ukelele might not seem particularly Christian, but Jesus cares about body, mind and spirit. All good gifts are from him.

3. Encourage healthy friendships. "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity," says Proverbs 17:17. Friendship is a great and mysterious gift. A friend takes us as we are, and likes us; a true friend shows us ourselves as we are, and makes us better people. We admire them and we try to live up to them; we raise our game.

4. Give people a purpose. Most of us at some point in our lives cherish a fantasy of being able to do exactly what we like, with no responsibilities and no calls on our time. If it actually happened, we'd probably hate it. We like being needed. We like having a purpose. It's hard-wired into us: there has to be a reason for getting up in the morning. Churches can improve people's happiness levels by showing them they're needed.

5. Take the pressure off. If it's really true that religious people are happier not because religion makes them happy but because you have to be happy to be religious, that's terrible. Churches ought to be clear that it's OK to grieve, to be down and to admit that life is going really badly. When we ask people to put on a happy face as soon as they walk through the church door, we're asking them to tell lies. Churches, of all places, ought to let people be honest.

The great Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon once said: "It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness." Part of a church's ministry is helping people enjoy what they have.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods