Post No.: 0387
Religiosity or spirituality is, generally, correlated with better health outcomes, such as lower levels of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, hypertension, emphysema, some cancers, chronic pain and premature death overall. This may be explained by some religions encouraging followers to eat, drink and behave in ways that also tend to be good for their health (e.g. encouraging abstinence from smoking, drug abuse, excessive alcohol consumption or risky sexual behaviours). There is also the better coping of stress and difficulties as a result of having supportive company for being in a tightly-knit social support network, and from some rituals such as meditation, which has been causally shown to reduce stress and bolster the immune system.
Being religious can also psychologically give someone a greater sense of purpose, meaning, existential security, self-esteem and optimism. Accepting that some things are ‘God’s will’ may help one to let go of the things one cannot control, yet through thinking that one’s prayers will make a difference, a greater sense of control may be perceived – whichever belief makes one’s mind feel more at ease for a given situation. (However, intercessory praying on behalf of someone else’s health after a surgical procedure won’t, unsurprisingly, help them in any way, and in fact if they know they’re being prayed for, it could make them feel guilty and stressed under the pressure of needing to get better to repay that faith.) Post No.: 0276 discussed the difference between internal and external loci of control.
Religious fundamentalists tend to be more optimistic than moderates, who in turn tend to be more optimistic than atheists. The feeling that ‘God is on our side’ will naturally inspire optimism. But it can also inspire perilous overconfidence too (e.g. regarding the chances of a swift and successful military campaign).
Those who attend religious services tend to have larger and tighter social networks, which offer both tangible and emotional benefits. However, being religious is only beneficial to one’s health if religion is common and socially desirable within one’s country or community, otherwise being religious will mean opposing the social norm, as if one is considered the relatively deviant outcast, and thus may lead to lower levels of health. The prevailing immediate, surrounding culture and context thus matters.
Therefore religion is not always beneficial to health, and this includes certain religious or spiritual practitioners telling followers to avoid taking vaccinations, medications, giving organ donations or imposing other similar constraints related to medicine for whatever reason. And the social support partially depends on the wider cultural context – the details matter and the benefits of religion should be taken on a detail-by-detail basis.
Health naturally tends to correlate with happiness or subjective well-being, and so religiosity tends to correlate with greater happiness levels overall too, due to many of the same mechanisms of promoting better health and social support. Like for health problems, the social company and support helps one to better cope in the face of life problems too. The relationship between religiosity and happiness is mediated by feeling socially supported and respected – but this again only tends to occur in countries or communities where religion is the norm and all of the community benefits, and the social respect that comes from following the local norm or following one’s peers.
Amongst American Christians who attend church at least once per week, happiness tends to peak on Sundays. For those who seldom or never go, it tends to peak on Saturdays. This suggests that it is religious attendance, not prayer or belief, that matters most i.e. the friendship networks and social support. (Of course these are just crude stereotypes but this might help explain the stereotypes of religious teenagers who gaily sing hymns in their congregations compared to atheist teenagers who listen to dark and broody angst rock alone in their bedrooms, complaining about how the fuzzy world doesn’t understand them(!) Having said that, some studies suggest that sad music actually makes us feel happy, and there must be a reason why so many adolescents in particular are drawn to it. Maybe like watching sad movies, they touch more of our emotions or touch them deeper, and validate our current emotions rather than deny them?)
Purpose and meaning contribute to happiness too, and followers of religions certainly feel a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Religion especially helps one to palliatively cope in places where life is difficult and insecure. But in places where life is easy, there are many other ways people can find happiness and thus religion isn’t needed so much for people to cope and feel happy in these easier and more secure times and places. Religion serves a comforting function – it is arguably ‘the sigh of the oppressed… the opium of the people’. Religion can provide groups of people with appealing beliefs and in turn the strength to carry on in the face of great immediate suffering. It can also serve a comforting function to individuals suffering from a personal trauma, tragedy or loss.
So the lessons that can be gleaned from all this are to be regularly involved in a strong, socially-connected group, to have a greater sense of purpose and meaning that is social rather than individual, and to maybe use more social words like ‘friend’ or ‘brethren’ than analytic or insight words like ‘think’ or ‘consider’. Strong social relationships are critical to our health and happiness, and religious groups can serve these excellently. But strong social groups can form without religion too. In less religious countries, the non-religious have social support and respect from non-religious sources, hence the non-religious in these countries can have a higher average level of subjective well-being than the religious.
Whether a group is religious or non-religious though, there is a pernicious side-effect – tight groups of any kind can reinforce internal biases, and people generally agreeing with you as opposed to disagreeing with or questioning you increases cognitive ease and, although this can increase happiness, it can make us perceive an oversimplified view of the world. So you need to be in a cohesive social group – yet one that somehow doesn’t silence different and diverse views. But this is unnatural since we tend to naturally self-segregate and choose our groups based on their similarity of views with us. We could try partaking in multiple social groups that are diverse from each other but this won’t be easy if any group holds fundamentally opposing views from another.
In short, the relationship between religion and health and happiness is not completely straightforward, and the benefits of social belonging, support, purpose, meaning, optimism, comfort or security, healthier lifestyles and so forth can be achieved without being religious too. Nevertheless, religions offer one way to provide many of these benefits.