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Fat and happy: the comforts of practicing a religion

People who are active in their religious congregations tend to be happier, a new Pew survey finds. But that advantage doesn’t extend to their waistlines.

In a large meta-analysis of 35 countries, Pew researchers found that religiously active people around the world report a range of desirable health and social outcomes. They vote and volunteer more. They also smoke and drink less than the nonreligious or those who rarely attend.

The study, “Religion’s Relationship to Happiness, Civic Engagement and Health,” builds on a growing mountain of literature linking religion and health. That literature has mostly found that religions seem to contribute to overall health, though there are obvious exceptions.

Perhaps most notably, religious participation does not appear to encourage weight loss or regular exercise.

In 19 of the 35 countries, actively religious people are as likely as any other to be fat. They are also less likely to  exercise.

Harold Koenig, one of the foremost experts on religion and health, and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, said the correlation is particularly true in the U.S. among African-Americans and ethnic groups.

Religious people, he said, “are encouraged to eat. And the kinds of meals people eat in church fellowship groups are high-calorie ribs and fried chicken.”

In most countries, highly religious people are not more likely to rate themselves as being in very good overall health. The U.S. is among the exceptions. Thirty-two percent of Americans who are active in their religious congregations say they are in very good health, compared with 27 percent of their religiously inactive counterparts and 25 percent of nonreligious people.

The association between religion and happiness, however, is clear-cut: In every country studied, people who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier than those who attend infrequently or not at all.

“In the U.S., religion tied to some measures of health, happiness and civic engagement.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Thirty-six percent of actively religious U.S. adults describe themselves as very happy, compared with just a quarter of other Americans. In Australia, 45 percent of actively religious adults say they are very happy, compared with 32 percent people who attend infrequently and 33 percent of people who never attend. In some countries the differences weren’t that statistically significant.

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