lecture hall

I begin with a bit of self-disclosure. I don’t have a religious or spiritual bone in my body. (Yes, maybe even less than Richard Dawkins.) But this doesn’t mean that I’m not open-minded about research on happiness and religion. As I write in my book, The How of Happiness, just because (most) religious beliefs cannot be empirically tested or falsified doesn’t mean that the consequences of having religious faith, participating in religious life, or searching for the sacred cannot be studied. Indeed, a growing body of psychological science is suggesting that religious folks are happier, healthier, and recover better after traumas than nonreligious ones.

Consider just two examples:

• If you are having serious cardiac surgery and receive strength and comfort from your religious faith, you’ll be almost 3 times more likely to be alive 6 months later.
• 47 percent of people who report attending religious services several times a week describe themselves as “very happy,” versus 28 percent of those who attend less than once a month.

The trouble is that researchers don’t really know why.

The social support and sense of identity provided by belonging to a close-knit church, temple, or mosque could be the operative mechanisms. After all, religion is usually not practiced in isolation but within a “fellowship of kindred spirits,” who share one another’s burdens, reach out to those in need, and offer friendship and companionship. Indeed, people who attend religious services on a regular basis have larger social networks – that is, more friends and acquaintances on whom they can and do rely.

Second, a person’s relationship with God can clearly be a source of comfort in troubled times, as well as a foundation for self-esteem, feeling unconditionally valued, loved, and cared for. Those who feel this way have an amazing sense of security. Their belief that God will intervene when needed gives them a sense of peace and calm, and their identification with particular biblical figures can help them interpret and guide their lives (e.g., “How should I act at this juncture?”).

Third, a sense that God has a purpose in everything helps religious people find meaning in ordinary life events, as well as in traumatic ones. A health crisis or a death in the family – especially one that is unexpected or premature – may not have a clear secular explanation and can severely challenge our basic assumptions about the fairness and justice of the world. Religion and faith can help people understand that the event is part of a broader divine plan or that it offers an opportunity for spiritual growth or that they have the ability to handle things. The sense of meaning that people derive from their religion can provide hope, a satisfying explanation via a broader, benign purpose, and, of course, solace.

Last but not least, religion and spirituality undoubtedly help people find meaning in life. Most people need to feel that they matter, that their suffering and hard work aren’t futile, and that their lives have a purpose. They need to feel a sense of control over their fates. They need to be able to justify and defend their actions – why they should forgive, what they have to be grateful for, why they should turn the other cheek, and so on. They need a reason to focus beyond just themselves.

So, I’ve been thinking recently about these questions – about why religion and spirituality have such great benefits for many people – and it got me wondering about what it must be like to go to religious services once a week. For all the reasons described above, I must assume that the regular ritual (whether it’s every Sunday morning or Friday night or some such) must provide people with…

• social and emotional support from other members
• affirmation of their identities, values, and lifestyle
• reinforcement of their meaning in life (e.g., “We are more than just a momentary blip in the universe”)
• comfort in the face of hard times
• distraction from stresses and hassles
• compassion for those less fortunate
• inspiration, awe, and hope (e.g., “I can do this,” “I’m stirred to go help someone today or forgive my enemy or save the planet.”
• a sense of control and strength to cope with challenges
• and likely much more.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? So that made me think: Can’t those individuals who don’t believe in God or who don’t want to be affiliated with any formal religious institution do something like this once a week? Can’t they get together with like-minded folks and perhaps listen to a talk (as opposed to a sermon) about well-being or human strengths or an inspiring story? Surely, the good stuff on the list above could be obtained through secular means.

Perhaps it would be a bit like attending a “happiness workshop” once a week, and departing feeling inspired and comforted and supported. That sounds cheesy, I know, but I think there’s something to it.

***And now I hope you'll forgive some shameless self-promotion: If you want to learn more about the psychology of happiness and how people can become happier, I’m teaching a “master class” (via phone) on seven Thursdays (1pm EST) in July and September, 2008. Small but important caveat: I hope you’ll feel inspired, comforted, and supported, but I’m a scientist/teacher, not a preacher!

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