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The secrets behind why religion makes us happier 

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 07/22/22

Being “spiritual but not religious” is selling yourself short of all the benefits that come with practicing a religion.

The fastest growing move in religion is, surprisingly, not a religion at all. One in five Americans identify as spiritual but not religious, and the number of people in this category is booming.

I can’t help wondering if people who have faith, but aren’t involved in a church community, are missing out. 

If the latest social science findings are to be believed, being a person of faith who doesn’t belong to a church—that is, being “spiritual but not religious”—is selling yourself short of all the benefits that come with practicing a religion. 

A wealth of research shows that religion, by and large, offers amazing mental health benefits. But it’s practicing a faith, not just believing in God, that really brings help.

The topic is explored in a really fascinating new book,How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion. The author, David DeSteno, is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. 

His career focus is “uncovering ways to help people become more moral, more compassionate, and more resilient,” he explains in the book.

He’s explored these topics through the avenues of research and data. As a research scientist, he conducts psychological experiments to study these big questions. 

What he found was not what he expected

He writes:

As I continued to scientifically study the questions that fascinated me—questions about how to improve the human condition—I was surprised that many of the answers I found aligned with religious ideas.

He concluded that religious communities had conducted their own sort of “research,” fine-tuned over many centuries. This “research” led to the creation of “spiritual technologies” that are incredibly effective:

[Religion includes] a series of rituals, customs and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies—tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. 

Social science research in recent years confirms the effectiveness of these “spiritual technologies.” But even more importantly, he says scientists can actually learn from religion. He writes:

Spiritual leaders often understood—in ways that we can now scientifically confirm—how to help people live better. Social scientists are the new kids on the block … To ignore that body of knowledge is to slow the progress of science itself and limit its potential benefit to humanity.”

It turns out religious practices can lessen anxiety, reduce depression, and even increase physical health. Those who regularly take part in religious practice report greater well-being than those who don’t. 

Among many other things, he cites the considerable benefits of practices like giving thanks, meditating, and moving and singing in unity with other people at religious services. 

The religion actually has to be put into practice

He writes:

The key point here, though, is easy to miss. Saying you’re religious doesn’t matter much for health and happiness. It’s being religious—taking part in the rituals and practices of a faith—that makes life better. 

If you’re “spiritual but not religious,” maybe this is your sign to join a church community. There are so many mental health benefits, many more than I can begin to list (you can check them out in DeSteno’s book!). 

If you already believe in God, joining a church feels like a natural next step. And take it from this believer—we’d be really delighted to have you join us.  

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