Is there a secret weapon against depression? Research suggests it might be religion. Studies show that people who practice some sort of religion are happier and less stressed out than those who don't.
Those findings come as no surprise to Dr. Harold Koenig, a psychologist and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, who says there are a number of factors that contribute to religious people being happier and healthier.
"We've found that people who are more religiously involved, especially in their religious communities, tend to have better health," Koenig said. "They have less depression, greater well-being, cope better with stress, have lower blood pressure and stronger mmune systems, and they live longer."
Koenig said these differences could be attributed to having a more positive world view and a greater desire to help others. "We think that the greatest effect of religion is that it motivates people to give of themselves and to contribute to others' lives," he said.
"Generally, religious people have a positive view of the world. They believe they are here for a reason. They see a purpose and a meaning in their life and have hope."
Studies show that under severely stressful conditions, religious people also cope better.
"They feel that God is with them and gives them strength," said Koenig.
What About Spirituality?
It is not clear if there is a difference in happiness between those who practice organized religion and those who consider themselves spiritual, said Koenig. In part, that's because it is more difficult to define spirituality.
However, Koenig added, practicing within an organized religion seems to offer people important group and community support. While an activity like volunteering can provide much of the same satisfaction as attending church, many people need external motivation.
"If you give of yourself and love others and have a positive outlook, you can achieve the same thing," said Koenig. "The only thing is most people can't do that. Most people need some kind of faith system and group support which a church provides."
Koenig says it seems to make little difference what religion people practice -- whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim -- but rather how devoutly they practice it.
That's not to diminish the importance of having a well-developed, meaningful sense of spirituality. In fact, it plays a major part in shaping your life outlook.
According to Rich Mayfield, pastor of Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon, Colorado, "When you take spirituality seriously, it often radically alters your preconceptions so everything gets deconstructed, and then you begin to reconstruct," Mayfield said. "If there's no depth to spirituality, we find ourselves relying on rather trite platitudes like 'God must have had a plan,' or 'It must have been God's will,' which doesn't make any sense because that makes God a murderer when people die."
Mayfield asserts that when people think God failed them, it's because they didn't go deep enough.
"The image of God is one of acceptance -- a deep profound love," he said. "If you pursue that and free yourself from archaic, world views, you find yourself liberated to be fully human and to celebrate life ... (although) that doesn't mean life works out nicely; tragedy does occur."
The risk of not working hard at developing such a mature spirituality is the possibility of creating an internal "religious strain," which could actually have negative health effects.
When Depression Leads to Desperation
Depression and desperation often go hand in hand. A negative view of events in and around your life can easily lead to a slide into a depressed state--one in which you feel you've lost control. As the patron saint of desperate causes, St. Jude is there for us like a concerned friend, ready to help lift us up out of our desperate feelings, and put us back on the track of maximizing our spiritual growth. His novena is a wonderful tool for taking back what is rightfully ours: a positive mental and spiritual outlook.
Humans Hard-Wired to Be Religious?
While surveys show that about 80 percent of Americans consider themselves religious, only about 40 percent of Americans reported regularly attending church -- about the same percentage as in 1939, said Koenig. And younger generations are consistently less religious than their parents.
But Koenig said there is some research suggesting that humans actually are biologically wired to be religious or spiritual. In fact, according to a recent Time magazine cover story, "The God Gene," many scientists believe our DNA compels us to seek a higher power.
"Religious faith may help people live longer," said Koenig. "Because it affects our health, it may be that it's genetically programmed.
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