Faith, Health and Happiness

You can’t open an internet site without a pop-up ad promising you some product or practice that will improve your memory, libido, relationships, or business practices. Go to Barnes and Noble and check out the “self-help” section. The shelves groan with books on meditation, macro-biotic diets, anger management, and embracing the inner child. If we did every practice that only took “ten minutes a day,” we would never get anything done, but we would be healthier, happier and more fulfilled.

But more often than not, this isn’t the case. Not that picking up a positive habit isn’t a good thing, but why aren’t we feeling better if we’re getting better? One reason we don’t know how to feel good is that so little work has been done to discover the sources and influences that actually do make us feel good and positive about life. Psychologists David G. Myers and Ed Diener pointed out this dearth of research in a study they called “The Science of Happiness.”

After surveying decades of Psychological Abstracts they found 5,119 articles that address anger; anxiety is mentioned 38,459 times, depression 48,366 times. But happiness? Only 1,710 mentions. Life satisfaction? Only 2,357 mentions. Joy? Only 402 mentions. This amounts to a 21 to 1 ratio of negative to positive emotions studied by our scientists. Jung successor and Jungian analyst James Hillman asks the question, “Why do we focus so intensely on our problems?” and then answers it: “Somehow we desire our problems; we are in love with them as much as we want to get rid of them.”

By now researchers have asked a huge sampling of the human race — more than a million people — what makes life satisfying. The results are in. And we now have some predictors of joy and life satisfaction.

Surprisingly, there is virtually no relationship between income and happiness. The richest Americans (Forbes’ 100 wealthiest Americans) are negligibly happier than the average American. Similarly, there is little relationship between disabilities and happiness. Within four months of his paralyzing accident, Christopher Reeve reported “genuine joy in being alive.”

These authors did find five traits that characterize “happy” people:

1) “Positive self-image.” People who are content with life are confident about their abilities and embrace their gifts.

2) “Personal Control.” Upbeat people exert control over their lives. In theological language, people who are happier are more self-disciplined than people who aren’t.

3) “Optimistic.” A positive outlook on life and an openness to others is essential to good mental health.

4) “Extroverted.” In their use of this term, the authors are more concerned about the ability to achieve lasting relationships with others than about some personality style.

But the trait that correlated most closely with happiness was #5: “Faith.” Karl Marx got it as wrong as anyone could get it when he said religion was an opiate of the people. On the contrary, religion is a key stimulant to and ingredient in a happy life. In the words of their research, “Actively religious people are much less likely to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce and to commit suicide. In Europe and North America, religiously active people also report greater happiness. In one Gallup Poll, highly spiritual people were twice as likely as those lowest in spiritual commitment to declare themselves very happy. Other surveys find that happiness and life satisfaction rise with strength of religious affiliation and frequency of worship attendance. One statistical digest of research among the elderly found that one of the best predictors of life satisfactions is religiousness.”

Even the so-called “hard sciences” are finding similar correlation’s between a commitment of faithfulness and the physical well-being of individuals. Studies have found that those individuals who profess a belief in God, who confess to an active faith relationship, are more generally healthy than those who don’t. Apparently, when believers do become injured or ill, they tend to heal faster, respond better to treatment, and generally get well more quickly and more often than those who disavow any active faith life.

So what does this mean? We should evangelize by promoting Jesus as a superior product that brings one health and happiness? Is religion merely functional? Our God is better than your God? We all know people who are a faithful, sincere believers who get cancer and suffer greatly. We also know people of no faith who seem pretty happy.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a definitive physiological relationship between health and faith. MRI scans reveal that those regions of the brain most active and responsive during healing processes are the same as those that are functioning at highest capacity when individuals are praying or involved in rituals of worship. Scientists theorize that the brains of those who are actively faithful are thus physiologically “wired” for healing — that portion of the brain that flexes in faith practices also helps us back to health.

We can all testify to the peace we can experience when circumstances dictate otherwise because we trust in a Sovereign God. We all know that gratitude and a positive attitude can get us through an illness with more aplomb. We have experienced answered prayer even after years of petitioning God. Faith isn’t like a nickel you put into a gum ball machine which dispenses goodies. Faith is trust in the mercy of God and that makes all the difference.

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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