How does religious faith affect our psychological health and wellbeing?
For the purposes of this article, we are talking about people who identify as Christian, although the research may also apply to other religions.
Defining Religious Faith
Individuals with religious faith tend to have the following factors in common:
- A belief in the existence of a personal transcendental force (God) that loves and cares about humans and is responsive to their needs.
- Observe certain guidelines for living (the Bible).
- Regular attendance of religious services/involvement in a community of like-minded people.
- Embracing religious practices such as prayer and meditation.
At this point in time, the majority of studies into the area of faith and wellbeing have been conducted in the United States, so mostly relate to the Judeo – Christian belief system.
The Positive Effects of Faith
According to the Medical Journal of Australia, “There is mounting scientific evidence of a positive association between religious involvement and multiple indicators of health” – and this includes mental health.
Having a religious belief and/or involvement has been shown to be associated with many positive contributors to mental health and wellbeing. Here are just some of the factors which have been noted in research:
- Church Attendance – Regularly attending a community of faith (eg church, home group) is associated with positive psychological wellbeing. It is thought that regular religious attendance protects these individuals from social isolation, and therefore depression, anxiety, etc. In difficult times they have a social support system already in place.
- A Sense of Purpose – Religion gives followers a sense of purpose, which has been shown to promote emotional resilience – the ability to deal better with adversity, whether external (difficult circumstances) or internal (genetic factors or vulnerability to mental disorders). As Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”. Studies have shown that people with a greater sense of purpose have better sleep, less likelihood of depression, and better chance of recovery from addiction.
- Rules and Regulations – The Christian faith offers a number of rules and guidelines for living, and how to treat others, based on the Bible. These rules are intended for good, and reduce the likelihood of a wide range of difficulties such as substance abuse, and divorce.
- Better relationships – This is due to the focus on human virtues such as honesty, gratefulness, patience, humility, responsibility, all of which enhance relationships. Studies also show that active involvement in religious faith decreased the risk of divorce, and facilitated marital functioning and parenting.
- A Focus on Others – The Christian faith emphasises helping others, showing compassion, giving and serving – practices which take the focus off the self. Not only does this distract individuals from their own problems, it also generates positive emotions and psychological wellbeing.
- Prayer Reduces Stress – Harvard scientist H Benson is just one researcher to have investigated that prayer can help to reduce stress.
It appears that for the most part, the Christian faith has a positive influence on psychological wellbeing.
Your religious beliefs are a very important part of who you are, so it makes sense that exploring and discussing them should be incorporated in the counselling process, should you see a psychologist.