Much research in the past 30 years has demonstrated that people with strong religious beliefs tend to exhibit greater well-being in their lives. The psychological benefits of religiosity are known to include: increased social connections, greater resilience to life challenges, cultivation of compassion, forgiveness and gratitude, and reduced risk of suicide and addiction.
But how is it that religious people seem happier overall? Two recent studies provide new insights into the psychology of faith.
Researchers in Singapore studied the way religion seems to promote positive emotions (such as gratitude and contentment) in believers. Specifically they examined a religious person’s “teleological” interpretation of everyday events — that is the tendency to perceive meaning, purpose or design in ordinary occurrences. The more the individual sees significance in events, the more s/he experiences positive feelings, which over time enhance well-being. The study found this connection in people of various faiths: Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim and Christian.
Researchers at the University of Michigan studied the role of religious belief in the lives of socially-isolated people. People who enjoy relationships with family and friends generally have a strong sense of life purpose. Those that don’t have many social connections often lack purpose. But the study found a belief in God can promote purpose and psychological comfort in disconnected individuals by acting as a “substitute” for some aspects of human relationship. In effect people feel valued and supported by having a “friend in God.” While faith can help lonely people cope, researchers warn that it cannot provide a sense of purpose as deep as that derived from actual human connection.
These two published studies provide evidence that religious belief enhances well-being by promoting positive emotions and a sense of life purpose. This adds to the mounting research about the positive effects of membership in an organized faith.
But what about the growing number of unaffiliated people who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious”? Are there psychological benefits to be gained for people who cultivate a personal spirituality in their lives? The answer, of course, is yes. And we’ll explore that in the next blog post.