In this season of holidays, it seems timely to assess the value of religion in human lives.
The bottom line: Being religious is positively associated with well-being.
Moreover, being "very religious" is especially advantageous, as the faithful report significantly less depression, stress, worry, anger and sadness, compared with people who are only moderately religious or nonreligious.
The folks at Gallup can explain.
In recent months, the venerable polling organization conducted 550,000 interviews to capture Americans' views about their own well-being during the Great Recession.
People were asked about their religiosity: Those who attended services weekly and agreed that religion was "an important part of daily life" were categorized as "very" religious. Those who never or rarely attended services and did not consider religion an important part of daily life were the "nonreligious." Those in between were dubbed moderately religious.
When the data came in, the researchers found that the very religious scored the highest (68.7 points) on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
Both the moderately religious and nonreligious scored 64.2 points. This may not seem like much of a difference, but it is "highly" significant in a massive sample size like this, wrote Gallup researchers Frank Newport, Sangeeta Agrawal and Dan Witters.
When they looked closer, they also found that the religious people scored higher than the nonreligious in categories such as emotional health, physical health, life evaluation and work environment.
Then, in a separate report issued Dec. 1, the Gallup researchers said they found that the very religious were also less likely to feel depressed or be worried, stressed, sad or angry compared with other groups. For instance, 46 percent of the moderately religious and 43 percent of the nonreligious said they felt stress "a lot of the day yesterday," but only 39 percent of the very religious felt that way.
Why are the faithful bobbing above the others in these turbulent times?
It could be that praying and studying Scripture are stabilizers for the soul, or that the wisdom in these religious writings gives people tools to cope more easily with setbacks and problems, the Gallup researchers suggested.
Also, many religions, including Christianity — the dominant religion of the U.S. — "embody tenets of positive relationships with one's neighbors and charitable acts, which may lead to a more positive mental outlook," the Gallup researchers noted.
And then there is the uplifting social interaction people get by attending religious services together.
This connectivity in congregations is, indeed, a "secret ingredient" that links satisfaction in life with religiosity, according to yet another study released Tuesday in the American Sociological Review.
People who attend religious services weekly and have three to five close friends in their congregation are most likely to say they are "extremely satisfied" with life compared with people who attend services less often or have fewer friends there, said Chaeyoon Lim, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-author of the study with Harvard public policy professor Robert D. Putnam.
"One of the important functions of religion is to give people a sense of belonging to a moral community based on religious faith," said Mr. Lim.
I realize that as profound as these findings are, they may not quite stir the human heart. So let me illustrate the point with Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
The focus of this beloved story is the suffering and spiritual awakening of the miserable, nonreligious Ebenezer Scrooge.
Surrounding him on his journey are all manner of very religious folk, including men who seek charity for the poor and families who celebrate Christmas whether in poverty (the Cratchits) or wealth (Fred, Scrooge's nephew).
The tale conveys the generosity, kindness, unconditional love and hope that comes from being part of a community of faith, and then ends with Tiny Tim's prayer, "God bless us, every one."
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.
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