Attending a church, synagogue, or mosque may be better for one's mental health than engaging in sports, furthering one's education, or volunteering. So say researchers at the London School of Economics and Erasmus MC, who studied the effects of these four types of activities on the mental health of 9,000 Europeans aged 50 and older. Reporting in the American Journal of Epidemiology, they also found that some activities, like joining a community organization like a political group, appear to result in less happiness in the long run. "The church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life," says epidemiologist Dr Mauricio Avendano, who notes religious activities were the only type to contribute to sustained happiness.
Researchers admit the study's sample size is small, and they were not investigating why but rather whether these four types of activities influence happiness. They do not note whether people in the study were new to these activities or whether there was crossover between them, but they do posit a few theories. "It is not clear to us how much this is about religion per se, or whether it may be about the sense of belonging and not being socially isolated," says Avendano, who adds that this participation can influence lifestyle choices, reports the Oregonian. As for political organizations, he says: "Participants receive a higher sense of reward when they first join an organization, but if it involves a lot of effort and they don’t get much in return, the benefits may wear off after some time." (Here's what 53,000 kids say about happiness.)