One of the most familiar themes in current public discourse about religion is the link between religion and wellbeing. Studies over the past 30 years on the whole support the story that religion is good for well-being; that the religious are happier than the non-religious; that atheists are more miserable; that religious practices are good for you; and so forth.
Is it true? A new report from the British think tank Theos summarises the findings of 139 of these studies – some of them already summaries of other studies – revealing more precisely what they tell us on this subject. What follows are edited excerpts from their executive report.
* * * * *
Precisely what further conclusions one draws from these studies will depend on what we understand from ‘religion’ and what from ‘well-being’.
Religion, for example, might mean affiliation – the extent to which I identify as ‘belonging’ to a particular religion. It might mean religiosity – the importance that I attach to religion in my life. It might mean belief – the extent to which I hold the creeds of a particular religion to be factually true. It might mean group participation – the extent to which I join in with what other people of that religion do. Or it might be personal participation – the extent to which I perform the practices of that religion personally.
A similar approach is necessary when dealing with well-being, where terminology is even more diverse and slippery. Not only do studies talk of ‘happiness’, ‘life-satisfaction’ and ‘well-being’ interchangeably, but those very terms are to some degree open to the interpretation of the subject: the difference between happiness, life-satisfaction and well-being is, to some degree, in the eye of the respondent.
Our study adopts these two different categorisations.
[Findings from the analysis of the 139 studies are summarised on page 12 of the study in 11 points, beginning with the finding that the correlation between religion and wellbeing “holds well” across the studies.]
Authors’ commentary on the findings
Religion does, as a rule, lead to well-being although in a variety of ways. In some instances, religious belief can give people’s suffering meaning, and provide an interpretive framework by means of which they can cope with it.
That said, belief alone is not as strongly correlated with well-being as social and personal participation activities, with one study even reporting that those with religious belief, where it was not coupled with social and personal participation activities, could lead to higher levels of depression.
The loosest of our indicators of well-being, religious affiliation, was shown to have the weakest effect. Social participation evidenced the strongest positive correlation across all measures of well-being.
Similarly, belief alone is not enough as there were signs that types of belief mattered. Different types of belief in God (punitive or benevolent) and different types of attachments (secure, avoidant, and anxious) could have different effects. One study, for example, reported that belief in the afterlife is inversely associated with feelings of anxiety, while strong beliefs in the pervasiveness of sin are positively linked to anxiety.
Belief matters but it is not everything. Personal and, even more, social religious participation seem to be the most strongly correlated with well-being, although, again, this is not straightforward. Thus, there is some evidence that group participation for extrinsic rather than intrinsic reasons – seeing participation as a means to another end (recognition or advancement, for example) rather than an end in itself – can wipe out any of the positive benefits of any such participation, and even be associated with negative benefits.
Similarly, just as not all social religious participation may be good (some cults or religious sects may encourage behaviours that do not support good health), other forms of social participation that have nothing to do with religion can be associated with well-being. No one has ever claimed that only religious social participation is good for you, or that such participation is always good for you.
For all the complexities, it is reasonably clear that affiliation is a weak correlate to wellbeing. What you call yourself does not correspond strongly to how well you feel, although even here one has to be alert to the shifting sands: how someone religiously affiliates means different things depending on which religion is being discussed in which culture and at which time. Affiliation is, as this report calls it, a low-threshold category, but one still has to be careful not to trip up.
The plot: believing in ‘an overarching narrative of love and generosity’
It will be clear that summarising all these different findings neatly is problematic. As soon as you go beyond the main plot line that religion and well-being are positively linked, you are faced with such a plethora of sub-plots that you are in danger of losing the plot altogether.
One way of regaining it might be in the very idea of narrative with which we started. Humans live according to narratives, consciously and sub-consciously adopted. These articulate various understandings of who they are and what they are worth, what they do and what they should do, what they value and what they reject, what is their purpose and what is their destiny.
One way of understanding negative well-being is as the adoption of destructive or dehumanising narratives, that erode human worth, purpose and hope, sometimes as a result of and sometimes resulting in equally destructive habits. Reversing, retelling or extracting oneself from such narratives and habits is difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible.
The findings of the studies in this research might be understood to be gesturing towards the conclusion that the more that someone believes in and inhabits an overarching narrative of love and generosity, which they believe is ontological (i.e. written into the very fabric of the universe) rather than contingent (i.e. simply an admirable but essentially arbitrary personal choice with no resonance beyond the individual), the more likely they are to enjoy better well-being (with one caveat, to which we will return below).
This statement, specifically the phrase “adheres to an overarching narrative of love and generosity”, requires clarification. The phrase is intended to mean two things: firstly, believing that one is placed within an overarching or ‘cosmic’ or spiritual story in which the divine is characterised by love, acceptance and generosity, and accordingly the human has some kind of worthwhileness and purpose; and secondly, that in response one acts out that belief and those values of love and generosity through personal affiliation, personal habits, and personal participation in a group – in effect, in spite of the vicissitudes of whatever life throws at you, you live according to the narrative in which love flows from above, through you, to others.
Wellbeing is a side-effect of authentic religiosity, not the aim
The caveat is no less important. This adherence needs to be authentic. As soon as the desire to achieve well-being becomes the goal of religiosity, rather than a side-effect, the whole system collapses in on itself. To join community for the sake of ‘me’ is to kill community. To be generous for the sake of receiving something is to obliterate the meaning of generosity. Prayer that is a shopping list directed at some cosmic cash card soon ceases to be prayer. If there is any well-being to be got from religion, it should be got on the way, almost accidentally. Instead, to adapt a phrase, the seeker after well-being should seek first the kingdom of heaven, because only then will these others things be given to him or her.
There is no guarantee in any of this. Adhering to a spiritual narrative of love and generosity will not protect you from ill-health (although it may cement a good many health supporting behaviours so as to make ill-health a rarer-than-average likelihood). Adhering to such a narrative will not guard you against all times of loneliness or worthlessness (although being part of a generous and supportive community should help you deal with such times). Adhering to this narrative will not indemnify you against those feelings of pointlessness and futility that all flesh seems heir to (although it should help you revise and rewrite those feelings when they do come). The relationship between religion and well-being is only ever going to be probabilistic.
To conclude: none of this means that ‘religion’ is true. The surveys covered in this report cover a range of different religions, which do not believe or even do the same thing. What it does suggest is that religiosity is a complex phenomenon with complex but deep and inherent links with human well-being. However else we may see the religious narratives that criss-cross our public discourse change over the years to come, we can be confident that we will hear much more of this one.
Religion and Well-being: Assessing the Evidence. A report by Nick Spencer, Director of Theos, and colleagues.