The topic of religion and wellbeing is always of interest and never seems to go out of fashion. Most research that has been carried out in the last thirty years has found that religion does in fact have a good affect on people, making them happier and more satisfied that those who are not religious. People are drawn to all kinds of things in order to satisfy their needs.
For some it seems, their needs can be gratified by short term gains like winning an Intertops casino bonus. Others seek more long-term gratification. According to studies, it seems that religious people fair better than atheists who generally are less happy. Can we rely on this research, or should we look again?
A recent paper, put out by the British think tank, Theos, put out a summary based on 139 studies done on the subject and by looking at these and at the meaning of “religion” and “wellbeing” perhaps we will be better able to come to a better understanding and conclusion.
The definition of religion might mean “belonging’ or “affiliation” to a specific religion. Or perhaps it is how important the role of religiosity plays in daily life. Or it could refer to a person’s beliefs, how factually true to they hold their religion to be. Perhaps it is to do with being part of a group and doing what is expected of all members of that group or a personal participation and doing personally all that is expected to be performed as part of that religion.
The same needs to be applied when looking at wellbeing. Here the definition is wider. Words like ‘wellbeing, ‘happiness’ and ‘life-satisfaction’ are often used to refer to the same thing. But, of course all these words can be understood and interpreted differently. Each word may have a different meaning for each and every person. These words are used very subjectively.
Notes on the findings
It would appear that generally speaking religion does impact well being but in different ways. Sometimes having religious beliefs will help people going through difficult times and help them reframe their suffering giving them a better way to cope.
However, in terms of social and personal participation activities, it seems that religious beliefs do not connect as strongly with wellbeing. In fact, in one of the studies showed that religious belief when not linked to social and person interaction actually led to raised feelings of unhappiness.
In fact, religious association or affiliation ranked lowest in terms of links to well-being. Social interaction and participation ranked highest in all areas of well-being.
Another factor was that there are different types of beliefs and that this changed the results. Whether belief in a punitive God or a benevolent God and whether this led to feelings of security, or anxiety also had an impact and would cause different outcomes. For instance, a study showed that those with strong beliefs in the existence of an afterlife showed little feelings of anxiety whiles those with strong feelings about the negativity of sin led to higher levels of anxiety.
So, belief is important but more important is social religious and personal participation when it comes to well-being. However, this also has many factors and is not fixed. It has been found that there is a difference between participation for extrinsic reasons and intrinsic reasons. If involvement is only as a means to and end and not just as an end in itself, then this negates any positive benefits gained and can actually lead to negative results.
Of course, some religious groups and involvement may not be positive at all, like some cults or sects that promote certain behaviors that lead to unhealthy choices and lifestyles. At the same time, there are many different ways to socially participate that are not connected to any form of religion and these are also linked to well-being. There is no study that argues that only religious participation leads to feelings of well-being and that religious participation always has a positive outcome.
All this being said, it appears that being affiliated to a religious group does not show a strong link to wellbeing. How you refer to yourself does not necessarily show a strong link to the way you feel. Although again this may show differences depending on the particular group or culture in question. Nevertheless, affiliation is considered to be a “low threshold category”.
The main script: belief in love and goodness
It is not as simple seeing a positive link between religion and wellbeing. There is not just one script. The moment you look beyond the statement that religion equals wellbeing, you then find a multifaceted number of factors that come into play and the script changes and you can find yourself completely lost in the number of sub-scripts.
Keeping to the main script may be useful. People do live according to certain narratives, whether they are conscious of them or not. The narrative includes many elements such as how they view themselves, what they consider their worth to be, what is their purpose on this earth and what does their destiny look like.
Perhaps it is possible to understand ‘negative wellbeing’ as having a negative or debilitating narrative that do the opposite. Those that tear down worth, feelings of hope and meaning and may lead to poor lifestyle habits. It can be very difficult to change a negative narrative that has become ingrained.
It is possible to draw from the studies that the conclusion being put forward is that the stronger a person’s narrative of love and goodwill or who “adheres to an overarching narrative of love and generosity” which includes the idea that it is something being innately part of the way the world is, the higher the chance that they will experience more wellbeing. Alternatively, those whose narrative is love and goodwill but believe it to be a personal choice only will fair less well.
But the phrase “adheres to an overarching narrative of love and generosity” needs further explanation. This has two meanings. Firstly, the belief that one is in a world where the narrative is of a spiritual nature and is divine, based on love and kindness. Therefore, this gives the human a meaningful existence and purpose in living. The second is that in believing this, a person’s behavior will reflect those beliefs of love and generosity and it will be seen through their individual habits and personal participation in groups. So, despite life’s ups and downs, life is still seen as based on innate love and generosity which is flowing from above and is passed through you to other people.
Wellbeing as a side effect
The aim of becoming religious is not wellbeing, but a side-effect of it. Being religious needs to genuine. The moment the aim is for wellbeing via religiosity becomes the desire the whole thing breaks down. If the reason for joining a community is only for what you can benefit from it, or if being kind and generous is only to receive something in return, this destroys the idea of generosity. If your prayer consists of a shopping list this will not suffice. Well-being is a side-effect of authentic religiosity. It comes along, by chance. Better that “the seeker after wellbeing should seek first the kingdom of heven, because only then will these other things be given to him or her.”
Nevertheless, there are no guarantees. Adopting a spiritual narrative where love and kindness are the main elements does not prevent ill health. It may, however, help to develop healthy behaviors which may lead to a healthier lifestyle. It doesn’t necessarily shield you from loneliness or feelings of depression although being part of a community can relieve some of these feelings when they arise. As humans we are all subject to down times, when we feel unhappy or we feel life has lost its meaning and adhering to a spiritual narrative may help to reconnect you to your path.
We cannot conclude for sure that truth is ‘religion’. None of the studies that covered many different religions would claim that ‘religion’ is true. But from all the studies carried out we do know that religion is a very complicated phenomenon and impacts humans in a very important way. There are definitely links between religion and wellbeing. However, this is an important discourse and will continue and change over the years to come.