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Does Religion Breed Optimism?

advantages of religion

That’s the claim of a recent study showing a significant difference between weekly churchgoers and those who do not attend religious services. Optimism was over 50% higher in churchgoers, who also showed significantly fewer incidences of depression. But the study didn’t really show a difference between different religions, so it appears that it’s church, rather than religion, that provides the positive effects.

Other studies have shown similar psychological benefits, but they seem to be the result of close communities and friendships that flourish in church-like settings. So increased happiness and optimism may have more to do with being part of a close-knit community than any actual dogma people are being taught. Non-religious people who are socially engaged to similar degrees in their own communities see similar psychological benefits.

Changing Religious Landscape

Data on the benefits of religion seems to be a hot topic lately, and it may have to do with how the religious makeup of the US has changed over the last two decades. Demographics are shifting rapidly in the US, with significantly more people turning away from organized religion than in previous decades.

A significant number of people change their religious affiliation from the church they were raised in, which means that a lot of people are leaving the communities of their youth. Somewhere in that transition, are people falling through the cracks and not landing in supportive communities that offer the psychological benefits that we’re seeing in these studies? I’d also like to see whether these studies separate people by age, since many people stop going to church in their 20s and often return to regular church attendance later in life.

My Take

Churches provide a ready-made community for folks, which might provide some reassurance that allows people to feel like somebody’s got their back. Add that to the feeling that they have divine assistance on their side — or that at least somebody knows their troubles, cares and dreams — and I can definitely see how that produces a happier view of the world. But the non-religious friends I know are just as happy and well-adjusted, so it’s hard to think that they’re missing anything

I’m also wondering how the studies above measure “optimism” and whether the results might not be skewed by cultural stereotypes about happiness and life. Could measuring optimism be like measuring intelligence? There are different ways of being smart. Some people are just realists or skeptics or cynics; do we really think they’re less healthy or happy?

What do you think? Are people getting something from church attendance that they’re not getting elsewhere? Can people find communities outside of religious settings that nurture them mentally and emotionally?

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Related posts:

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How Smiling Can Make You Happier and Healthier

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