Tuesday, October 2, 2012

. . . and the Pursuit of Happiness

by Emily Davis

As humans situated in the twenty-first century, where consumerism, postmodernism, and existentialism reign, finding happiness in daily life can be arduous. However, in the last few decades, positive psychology scholars have made the search for a happy life their discipline’s primary concern.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Stanford University researcher, among others, recently linked happiness to leading a spiritual life. Scientists are generally hesitant to study the psychology of happiness in regards to spirituality or religion because often people feel that science and religion can’t mix; that the sacred cannot be quantified. However, Lyubomirsky contends that we can quantify the consequences of having religious beliefs, participating in religious life, or searching for the sacred.

Her research and best-selling book, The How of Happiness, argues that people who are religious seem to be quantitatively healthier and happier (measuring well-being through self-report). Lyubomirsky suggests this is because of two reasons: better social support and finding meaning in life.

In regards to health, religious people may simply lead healthier lifestyles. Several religious traditions often prohibit excess drinking, drug use, and promiscuous sex, or generally advocate for moderation or low-stress lifestyles.

The effects of religiosity on happiness are a little harder to pin down. It seems as though religious individuals often have social support and a sense of identity provided by belonging to a close-knit community that gives companionship. Individuals in these larger social networks also have inherent basic religious assumptions and beliefs in common and frequently have similar political and social values. These groups enable social, emotional and material support, as well as a place to feel appreciated, provided for, and accepted. This religious community affiliation reinforces identity and reaffirms lifestyle, says Lyubomirsky.

Conversely, measures of increased happiness are also found among people that are simply spiritual, and don’t have a religious community. Thus, scholars suggest that beyond social support, there may be a sacred support in a relationship with God.  An individual may feel comfort, self esteem, unconditional love, and a sense of security and peace through a personal relationship with God. They have a sense that God has a purpose for them which helps them find meaning in daily life.  This often takes the form of religious coping with traumatic or negative life events by finding fairness and justice with the world through a spiritual tradition’s teachings. Therefore, with religious and spiritual life people are creating a sense of meaning or control, a focus beyond themselves to build peace and happiness in their lives.

Additionally, even those that do not believe in God may still be searching for the sacred, sanctifying ordinary things on earth.  Examples might include an atheist who practices the physical traditions of yoga to create calm in their lives, but doesn’t adhere to the religious elements of the practice. In the same way, this provides motivation, meaning, and satisfaction by being able to experience a sense of the divine in everyday life.

Overall, Lyubomirsky cites studies that connect practicing religion, prayer/meditation, collective worship, or other spiritual pursuits to encouraging forgiveness, hope, gratitude, love, awe, compassion, joy, and ecstasy. Thus, spiritual practice is about creating a full and happy life. There are plenty of ways to not only be disconnected, but also angry or unhappy about the state of the world. However, when we explore spirituality or practice religion we activate the ability to fundamentally connect to the humanity of others and understand our true selves engendering happy individuals and communities.

Looking for happiness? Through Project Interfaith you can connect to the positives of a spiritual life. Explore the tapestry of this world’s diverse faiths, beliefs, and cultures at our upcoming events and on the web at www.projectinterfaith.org and www.RavelUnravel.com. 

Emily Davis is the Program Assistant for Project Interfaith. She recently graduated from Truman State University in May 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. Working through the Lutheran Volunteer Corp, she’s making a year-long commitment to community living, spirituality, simplicity and sustainability. Emily is passionate about global health, particularly the intersections between happiness and spiritual well-being and hopes to pursue a career in non-profit work around these social justice issues, becoming oriented to that work at Project Interfaith. In her free time she enjoys playing the mandolin, watching classic movies, and hiking.

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