The top line: People follow spiritual paths and join religious organizations for innumerable reasons, including faith, prayer, social support, community service, cultural tradition, friendship, commitment to the community and more. How often do you hear someone say that they committed to a religion or spiritual practice primarily to become happier? Perhaps not often. However, interestingly enough, studies demonstrate a close link between religious and spiritual engagement (practice) and happiness.
Scientists who study this phenomenon hypothesize several possible reasons for a link between religiosity and happiness. Religious organizations provide strong social support from like minded people, providing various opportunities for socializing, community service and making friends. Social engagement is currently recognized as being most strongly linked to happiness.
Spirituality and prayer also provide people with an opportunity to engage in a meditative act. Meditation has been shown to have a strong link with well-being because it calms the body, reduces stress and anxiety, and also supports positive thinking. Finally, both spirituality and organized religion can help provide people with perspective, hope, and a deeper sense of meaning. By believing in something greater than themselves, it may help them stay positive in times of sadness, and foster resilience. Generally, religiosity can be defined as one’s relationship with a particular faith tradition or doctrine about a divine other or supernatural power, while spirituality can be defined as “the intrinsic human capacity for self-transcendence, in which the self is embedded in something greater than the self, including the sacred” and which motivates “the search for connectedness, meaning, purpose, and contribution.”1 But these abstract ideas are measured in many different ways, from frequency of church attendance to asking people “how religious are you?” As for mental well-being and happiness, studies look at both negative (i.e. depression) and positive indicators of mental well-being (i.e. self-reported happiness, self esteem, positive relationships with others). Two recent surveys of the studies (meta-analyses) examine the different definitions and measurements of religiosity/spirituality as well as mental effects. One looks at adults, the other, adolescents, both with different results.
A 2003 review of 34 studies with mainly adult populations found that personal devotion measures are most strongly related to mental well-being, while ideological measures showed less strong though positive effects, and institutional measures (i.e. religious service attendance) had the weakest. A 2006 review of 20 studies with adolescent populations (average age 10-20) reported that 90% of these studies show positive findings in the relationships between adolescent religious/spiritual engagement and mental well-being.3 In contrast to the mostly adult-based study, it was institutional involvement that had the largest effect on mental well-being, with ideological and personal devotion measures showing a smaller impact. Scientists suppose that the social and behavioral impact of institutional involvement may be more beneficial to young people, because it provides a sense of order and belonging during a difficult transitional period of their lives. In general, they found that religious and spiritual involvement was more beneficial to older teens’ mental well-being, perhaps because it reflects personal choices rather than imposed parental expectations. They also found that it has more of an impact for males, but are unsure why. One important point about the studies is that, even though most researchers say they are looking at the “effect” of religion on mental well-being, the vast majority only show that religious and spiritual people report higher levels of happiness and mental well-being. This means that good mental well-being might predispose people to religious involvement or vice versa. To look at whether religiosity/spirituality causes better mental well-being, scientists must study people over a long period of time.
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Hackney, C. H., & Sanders, G. S. (2003). “Religiosity and mental: A meta-analysis of recent studies.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42:1 , pp. 43-55.
Wong, Y. J., Rew, L., & Slaikeu, K. D. (2006). “A Systematic Review of Recent Research on Adolescent Religiosity/Spirituality and Mental Health.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing 27: 2, pp.161-183.
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Study found “85% of those who said they went to church once a week or more were ‘very satisfied’ with life…” (in Argyle)
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Argyle, M. (2000). Psychology and Religion : An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Ellison, C.G., Gay, D.A., & Glass, T.A. (1989). “Does religious commitment contribute to individual life satisfaction?” Social Force, 68, 100-123.
Beit-Hallahmi, B., & Argyle, M. (1997). The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge.