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HHH Blog

45. Religion & Spirituality

PUBLISHED 21st March , 2017


Today I will tackle the challenging and controversial topics of religion and spirituality and their effect on happiness. The fact is that they can contribute to higher levels of wellbeing, and I will endeavour to explain why this is. I understand that some of you will run a mile to avoid a discussion on religion – the negativity surrounding constitutional faiths, extremist religions, and the churches’ evident failings have created major, if not permanent, roadblocks to the topic for many people. Then there are also the sober realists, who consider the whole subject a load of wishy-washy and unsubstantiated rubbish. And yet I cannot let the subject be – it belongs in a representation of the practices that bring about a happier and more meaningful life.

In my discussion I want to differentiate between religion and spirituality, and between positive and negative forms of either. Religion and spirituality are neither mutually inclusive nor dependent on each other. There are spiritual people who do not belong to any religious organisations. And there are religious people who follow customs that have little impact on their moral experience of life, let alone their sense of wellbeing. Self-righteous, fanatical, and hate infused religions will certainly not build happier lives, and neither will devious so-called “spiritual practices”, such as black magic or animal sacrifices, shed light in anyone’s heart. Let us be very clear about what good religions and forms of spirituality, and indeed positive beliefs, evoke: They connect us more deeply to our moral compass, to our fellow humans, and to a larger power that adds meaning, hope and comfort to our lives. Any belief that increases our fear, hopelessness or intolerance is not worth entertaining. (Life is hard enough.)

Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener argue that “whether people are religious or secular, they can learn something about how to practice happiness from the findings on religion and happiness”.1 Religion, they write, is a deeply personal mindset, and many people take their faith seriously. Studies found churchgoers to have better health and to be more forgiving compared to non-religious people. Elderly Christians were found to worry less about money due to the support they gave and received in their congregation, and those who attended church frequently were significantly more likely to be alive three years later. Religious individuals are less likely to commit crimes and/or take drugs, and are more likely to live longer, receive more education and earn more money. On average, religious people have shown to be happier than their non-religious counterparts, regardless of how religiousness is defined; i.e. whether they attend church or privately follow their spiritual beliefs.2

What are the aspects of religion and spirituality that support emotional wellbeing? According to Diener and Biswas-Diener, there are a number of ingredients:

  1. The comfort of having answers to what happens when we die. Every major world religion offers reassurance and guidance on the question of where we are headed once our life here on earth ends. In a series of studies, participants who were asked to write about what will happen when they die showed an increased endorsement of their religious beliefs compared to the control group. Thinking about their death also temporarily opened them up to the possibility of supernatural powers in various forms and the comforting beliefs of other faiths.3 When my grandmother died she was well and truly ready to “go home”, and, being a dedicated and sincere Christian all her life, was a little cross with God for not taking her sooner (she was 96). She certainly was never afraid of dying.
  2. The social support that comes with being part of a religious group. Being a member of a spiritual community increases individuals’ sense of identity and belonging. Churches tend to have a strong social emphasis, offering various social activities and importantly, support and help during hard times. This represents a ‘psychological haven’ for members.4 Since social connection and support is so important to our psychological wellbeing, the caring, acceptance and social inclusion practiced in many spiritual groups is an antidote to one of our society’s foremost ills: that of isolation and loneliness. It seems that some churches are now more social organisations than centres of spiritual teaching and inspiration. Regardless of this, members of such churches are likely to be happier for belonging to them.

When I was 8 months pregnant with my third child, I was anxiously awaiting my then brother-in-law and his family to move into their new home so we could move into the old house, which was to be ours. Christmas became New Year and my due date was mid-January. Finally they moved, leaving behind a very dirty house and twenty bags of rubbish for us to take away. This might have broken my spirits, but along came my church friends. Armed with buckets and gloves, they scrubbed every corner of the house and cleaned up the garden. One brought a scraper and used it on the kitchen floorboards to roll up the dirt. Their help allowed me to paint the house and get it ready, literally hours before I went into labour. I have never forgotten their kindness.

  1. The celebration of rituals. Diener and Biswas-Diener point out that religious services often incorporate elaborate rituals steeped in tradition. Religious festivals often include music, displays and singing, which can sweep us up in a sense of beauty and majesty. Rituals can provide experiences that set us apart from everyday life, and in doing so, increase our sense of wellbeing.5 Think of the beautiful ritual of a Christening: it is no surprise that people now create their own “Christening” rituals. There is an inherent beauty in acknowledging the blessing of a child, her or his need for “spiritual protection”, and the importance of godparents who promise to step in if needed. Whether it is the lighting of candles, communal kneeling for prayer, or singing in high arched buildings: rituals have emotional, and also often spiritual, pull. I believe that rituals are important in our lives, whether we freely engage in traditional ones or create our own personal ones. They are a moment of pause, reverence and celebration, which add surety in our hearts. Over the years I have created my own rituals and copied ones I like from friends; none of these are performed in a church.

Like always, I hope that the scientific information and the personal accounts shared in this blog evoke a reflection in you. My goal is that you take it and see whether you feel inspired to apply some of it in your life. I understand that faith is a deeply personal matter. I will, however, say a little more about it next week.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2017

Notes

  1. Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008).
  2. Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness.
  3. Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness.
  4. Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness.
  5. Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness.

 

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