Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"Religious People Are Happier"

“Beauty is not who you are on the outside, it is the wisdom and time you gave away to save another struggling soul, like you.”
― Shannon L. Alder

            I haven’t grown up very religious. It was a path I chose for myself. And when I say religious, I mean that my parents didn’t take me to church, or do devotionals with me, and I’ve never seen them read the Bible or listen to Christian music. Both of my parents, if had to, would say they are Catholic. At most, my mom gave me a children’s version book of the Bible, and we would read those stories together sometimes. My mom and I also prayed together every night. My first look at what a religious person does came from one of my uncles, who was the only Christian among his five siblings. His daughter was like a sister to me growing up, so I used to sleep over a lot. My uncle would read a devotional to us before bed, and then we all went to church Sunday mornings, and on the way, my uncle would put on a Christian radio station. My favorite phrase he would say on the way to church was, “Are there any Christians on the road today?”

            When I got older and it was time to pick a college, I wanted to go to Azusa Pacific University to learn more about my faith. There, I met really great friends, was involved with an amazing community, and had an overall wonderful experience. I loved my time there. Whenever someone asks me about it, I say that it is the friendliest school on the planet. People always smile at you and say hi, whether they know you or not. Lots of people just hold open a door until everyone has walked through. Once, when I was on a small bridge looking at the water, a random girl walked up to me to find out if I was okay. It was strange, but nice.

            If I could pick one word to describe my experience there, it would be happy. I was very happy. But that’s not the word everyone would choose. I’ve had friends who were so unhappy and depressed there that they left. One of my roommates struggled with depression for years before going to APU and it continued throughout her time there. She felt a lack of community and support for her condition, and even felt bad for being depressed. She thought that since she was a believer, she shouldn’t be unhappy. What reason does a believer have to be unhappy when they have the grace and love of God?

            She wasn’t the only person who has expressed that opinion to me. When I was depressed, one of my Catholic uncles told me that it was because I didn’t count my blessings and wasn’t grateful for what I had. He said that if I was truly grateful, I wouldn’t be unhappy. My Christian uncle dismissed what I told him about my depression, because he said that I have God, so why would I be sad? It’s true that being at a Christian school were the happiest years of my life, but my faith did nothing to bring me happiness after I left. And like my old roommate, I thought that as a Christian, it was a sin to be unhappy. I felt like being an unhappy Christian was like taking all God has done for me, and then throwing it out like trash. It just felt like I was unappreciative and doing something wrong.

           Despite my own suffering, and those of people I knew, while exploring the topic of faith and happiness, the most prominent finding is that there is a lot of research to indicate that religious and spiritual people are happier, live longer lives, and have an overall better well-being than nonbelievers. Tom Knox cites many studies to prove this point, such as, “In 2006, the American Society of Hypertension established that church-goers have lower blood pressure than the non-faithful.” Religious people recover from injuries and diseases quicker than non-religious, and “A 1999 study found that going to a religious service or saying a few prayers actively strengthened your immune system.” An article titled “Spiritual Engagement and Meaning” states that spirituality and prayer can be a meditative act, which is linked with well-being, “because it calms the body, reduces stress and anxiety, and also supports positive thinking.”

            So, there’s a lot of good stuff that happens for believers and church-goers. There’s actually so much evidence to suggest that believers are happier and healthier than nonbelievers that it was hard to find much evidence to prove otherwise. Reading about all these studies reminds me of many conversations I’ve had with believers about happiness. I’ve heard believers, no matter Christian or Catholic, who have said that having faith is the only true path to happiness, so they don’t understand how a nonbeliever could be happy or even happier than they are. I think their perspective is a little funny.

            This belief that God is the only way to happiness means that every believer should be happy. So then when a believer is unhappy, what does that mean? They don’t truly have faith? They’re far from God? Something’s wrong with them? Really, this belief is false. All believers are not happy, and being a believer does not mean you will be happy. And being a nonbeliever does not mean you can’t be happy. Besides, this isn’t the gospel that Jesus preaches. He doesn’t say, “Follow me and you will be happy.” In fact, he says, “Follow me and you will be persecuted, go through many trials, and it will not be easy, but I will be with you through everything.” The main goal of Christianity is not to be happy, but happiness can definitely be a side effect. The main goal is to follow God by loving Him, others, and yourself. There are religions who preach happiness is the end all goal, but that’s not Protestant or Catholicism.

            Though believers face hardships like everyone else, being religious is ultimately very beneficial. In addition to the studies mentioned earlier, Ben Dean Ph.D. has also found that particularly for religious young people, there are less who smoke, do drugs, or drink alcohol. Also, “Young people who engage in religious practices (like going to church) are also more likely to have better grades and delay having sex.” Married couples who believe religion is important and actively participate in religious activities “are less likely to experience conflict in their marriage and more likely to perceive their spouses as supportive.” Believers who practice their faith may often have good traits “such as altruism, volunteerism, kindness, and forgiveness.” Lastly, having religious beliefs is associated with the ability to cope well through hardships.

"When you saw only one set of footprints,
 it was then that I carried you."
            In my own experience, the biggest difference between my friends who go through hard times is that the believers can “give it to God,” take the trial as a learning experience, and believe that things will get better. The nonbelievers have a greater difficulty understanding why they are suffering, and thus are less equipped to cope with it. Gordon Allport found that believers have either an intrinsic or extrinsic religious orientation, and this affects how they cope with life’s difficulties.

            Extrinsically orientated people seek out religion, “because it provides comfort and security, but he or she would also be motivated by guilt or external sources of pressure (family, social pressure, etc.).” Intrinsically orientated people are “motivated more by faith and a search for meaning and purpose in life.” People with intrinsic faith have better coping skills, because they can find meaning in the obstacles of life. This is backed up by studies such as, “In 1998, the American Journal of Public Health found that depressed patients with a strong ‘intrinsic faith’ (a deep personal belief, not just a social inclination to go to a place of worship) recovered 70 per cent faster than those who did not have strong faith.”

            Further, there are four different coping styles that religious and spiritual people have:
  •     A self-directing style – “Individuals with this style are calling the shots. Though they may believe in a higher power, they rely on themselves to solve/handle any problems.”
  •     A deferring style – “Individuals with this style are more passive. They wait for God to handle the situation.”
  •     A collaborative style – “Individuals with this style see themselves as working with God to deal with the problem at hand.”
  •     A surrendering style – “Individuals make a conscious decision to relinquish those aspects of the situation that are truly beyond their control.”

            Each style is actually useful with different situations, but most churches preach the surrendering style as the best, and say that the self-directing style is the worst. When it comes to just being able to get through a hard time, each has its benefits.

            Though prayer, mediation, and participating in religious activities all lead to good overall well-being, the most surprising finding was how important it is to attend service regularly. I did not grow up a regular church-goer. My parents have never taken me to church, though I drag my mom sometimes. My Catholic uncle took me to his church sometimes, and my Christian uncle also took me to his. During my time at APU, we were required to attend chapel three times a week. It was actually a mostly enjoyable experience, but I did spend plenty of morning chapels sitting in the back doing homework. Other times, I would be so tired that I couldn’t stay awake. One of my roommates, like the good friend she was, would punch me in the thigh when I fell asleep.

            I actually have never fully understand why going to church is so important. I knew it was important to go, though, so I’ve made attempts throughout my life. The article “Spiritual Engagement and Meaning” argues that one of the reasons there is a close link between religiousness and happiness is because, “Religious organizations provide strong social support from like-minded people, providing various opportunities for socializing, community service and making friends with individuals from a common network.” Interestingly enough, I am currently attending a Christian church, but go to a Catholic young adult group. I like the new church I found, because there’s a good pastor who is knowledgeable and engaging. But, I keep attending the young adult group, because I like being with a group of people who are all on the same page as me. We meet to read and discuss the Bible and how it relates to our daily lives. It’s really nice. I can’t say I have a support system there (I have two friends who go and many acquaintances), and actually never have at any church, but I did have that at APU.

            My roommates were not the typical APUian praise Jesus types, but neither was I. We all experienced God in our own way, and actually didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about it. But I appreciated that we all understood that all five of us were believers of different backgrounds, and trying to figure out our own faiths. It was just as normal to come home to our apartment finding someone listening to Rihanna as it was to find them listening to Phil Wickham (Christian artist - well, this happened less occasionally). And we would make fun of both, or not, depending on who it was and what mood we were in. Above everything, the thing I appreciated the most was that when I was going through a hard time and talked to one of my roommates about it, they never ever just said they’d pray for me. They would sit there, listen, tell me nice things to make me feel better, and give me chocolate sometimes. They were supportive, and I loved that. I guess that’s what people are supposed to find at church.

            Multiple studies indicate that church attendance is one of the most important characteristics that leads to happiness among believers. A 2010 study of adults found that other than service attendance and congregation-based friendships, “other subjective components of religion do not influence life satisfaction significantly.” Also, a few different studies report that attending a religious service regularly leads to longer life as opposed to those who never attend. Even those who attend irregularly live longer than non-attenders.

            Here’s where I’ll make some speculation about why nonbelievers can be just as happy or happier than believers, even though believers are often happier overall. In all my research of happiness, the thing that comes up the most about the key to happiness is gratitude. Religion teaches people gratitude, but you don’t need religion to learn it. Thus, anyone who is a grateful person can be happy with or without religion. According to the research I did for this post, the number one reason religious people are happier is because of the support system and community of like-minded people they find from regular service attendance. You also don’t need church for that. I know an 81 year old man who has attended AA meetings regularly for the past 41 years. He won’t ever miss unless he absolutely has to. It’s his community. It’s where he feels he belongs, and where he can do good by being supportive as well as receiving the support of others.

            I found my support at APU, which explains why my faith didn’t help me after I graduated. When I was depressed, I had God, but I didn’t have a community anymore. I had friends, friends who have been my friends since before my time at APU. I’m so grateful for their support, but they couldn’t provide the community that I missed. I’m so close to my friends, and almost all have been life-long, but there’s just something about going to a place where you feel loved and welcomed. At APU, I was surrounded by people like me, who were believers, there to learn and also trying to explore their faith in whatever direction it needed to go. It’s where I found community and happiness.


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