According to the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation (IHME) in 2017 under 300 million people suffered from anxiety globally, 160 million from major depressive disorders, and 100 million from milder forms of depression (Rice-Oxley, 2019). Additionally, according to The Well-being in the Nation Network a total of 42.6% of Americans reported that their well-being was either struggling or suffering as of 2017. Comparatively, 65% of American adults from 2018 to 2019 identified as Christians, while 26% of individuals reported as atheists or not religiously affiliated. The number of religious adults in America has decreased 12% over the past decade while the number of non-religious individuals has increased from 17% in 2009.
With these alarming statistics it is imperative to consider whether the decline of religion in America has contributed to the growing trend of poor mental health and well-being of adults in America, and if not what role religion has played in it’s undeniable influence on an individual’s welfare, health, happiness, and collective well-being. Excerpts from The Book of Joy and “On Virtue and Happiness” by John Stuart Mill concluded that the pursuit of happiness and a positive mentality is achieved by having virtue and joy from within that is not dependent on external variables. This analysis of one’s spiritual relationship with a higher being drastically affecting their overall life satisfaction and joy, has led me to the question of whether having religious values positively affects one’s well-being. For future reference I will be defining well-being as the state of being comfortable, healthy, and happy. There are many factors that contribute to one’s overall well-being but perhaps the most significant impacts can be seen when examining the mental health and social life of a religious individual.
Mental Health Perspective
Despite the many inconsistencies in research regarding religion and mental health, many studies have proven spirituality and religiousness to be in positive correlation with mental health and psychological functioning. Some benefits of having religious values can include a stronger form of resilience in challenging circumstances, a larger support system, an increase of one’s sense of meaning and hope, and a perceived control over situations (Jackson and Bergeman, 2011, as cited in Avent Harris, Garland Mckinney & Fripp, 2019). Despite these aforementioned assets of religion, it is not integrated in the practice of psychotherapy because the effects on one’s actual mental health have been debated for years. Ming Wen from the Department of Sociology at the University of Utah noted that the discrepancies mentioned regarding the correlation between religion and mental health are due to the fact that a narrow scope of measures have been applied to capture a complex and multifaceted topic (Wen, 2013).
To first identify the effects that religion may have on mental health it is necessary to differentiate the distinct types of religion. Personality theorist Gordon Allport wrote of the differences of immature vs. mature religion. Immature religion is related to self-gratification rather than self-reflection and ultimately is used to gain emotional and social support and status rather than for personal gain (Ventis, 1995). Contrarily, mature religion serves as a central function in one’s personality and complex thought while also being the primary motivation of one’s life that is fully experienced and lived (Ventis, 1995). Though Allport’s distinction of mature vs. immature religion has been a controversial topic and many argue that the religiosity scale is much more complex than these two factors, it has provided the most influential perspective on the psychology of religion. Additionally, religious coping is also a factor of religion that can affect one’s mental health. Religious coping consists of prayer, meditation, and worship (Pargament, Smith, Koenig, & Perez, 1998). Pargament et al.’s Brief Religious Coping scale showed that those who use religious coping mechanisms have proved to incorporate their belief in God in a healthy way by integrating religious coping tools with methods commonly used in mental health treatment (Avent Harris et al., 2019). However on the contrary, some participants also engaged in negative forms of religious coping by solely relying on God to take action and blaming God when their gloomy circumstances persisted (Avent Harris et al., 2019).
In Koenig’s Canadian Journal on Psychiatry he did find that religion has been connected to neurotic disorders such as hysteria, neurosis, and psychosis. While these findings may appear alarming he also conceded that religion is a resource to cope with stress and anxiety. He then provided examples of these coping methods being put into practice with a survey done on psychiatric patients at LA County’s mental health facility. Researchers found that 80% of the participants reported using religion to cope with their medical illnesses (Koenig, 2009). Additionally, a survey of 372 medical patients admitted to Duke University Medical Center found that at least one half of patients reported that their religious faith was the most important factor to cope with stress. And at least 90% of participants admitted to using religion as a coping method to ‘at least a moderate extent’ (Koenig & Larson 2001). In a new study dealing with psychiatric illness patients, David Rosmarin, a clinician in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, found that patients with greater beliefs in God had more successful treatment outcomes of an improved well-being, as well as less anxiety and depression. While Rosmarin couldn’t be certain whether the spirituality of those individuals boosted their treatment or whether religious people or somehow healthier than others it is apparent religion played a significant role in the positive outcome (Chow, 2013). When comparing all of these findings from various studies and surveys it is obvious that the use of religion as a coping mechanism is common amongst patients with medical and psychiatric illnesses. This is because religious beliefs provide a sense of meaning and purpose for individuals in desperate circumstances while also providing a sphere of control over uncontrollable situations. It is also accessible to anyone at any time despite one’s financial, physical, social, and mental abilities. One can not ignore these common advantages of religion to the well-being of all citizens despite their incompetencies, thus proving religion does have a positive impact on the mental health of an individual.
Religion also has a large influence on the social life of a religious individual and a community as a whole because religion in itself is often a social experience. It may be surprising to know even some atheists may identify with a religious organization because religion becomes part of one’s social identity whether they hold those religious values to be true or not (Baker & Smith, 2009). The involvement in a community that shares common beliefs has the effect of making those beliefs central to one’s personality and provides a positive model of prosocial behavior that benefits other people and society collectively (Ventis, 1995). While also promoting positive social behavior within the community, religion is also continually shaping and strengthening families as a primary focus is put on the sanctity and stability of the family. A plausible contributor to the promotion of a stable home environment for children and youth can be found amongst more religious parents that follow the clear norms set by religious standards of family and marriage (McAdoo & Crawford, 1991, as cited in Maton & Wells 1995). This idealistic family can also be assisted through congregational religion in the form of parental support systems, parental classes, and family counseling, which are all encouraged by traditional religion and provided by local communities and churches (Maton & Wells).
The benefits of these aforementioned resources of support can be felt amongst children and youth of religious backgrounds as they navigate the challenges of adolescence and adulthood. Christian Smith, the Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, observed that as American adolescents begin forming and shaping their lives, religion can provide them with imperatives and standards that positively influence the choices and decisions they make (Smith, 2003). More reliable studies have found that youth and families that regularly attend church exhibit a greater overall life satisfaction and joy within their lives and are also more involved with their families (Varon & Riley, 1999, as cited in Smith, 2003). Additionally, more research does corroborate the idea of church attendance and youth religiosity positively affecting academic achievement from childhood to adolescence (Muller & Ellison, 2001 as cited in Smith, 2003).
While the impact of religion on families and youth has been made apparent there are some implications in regard to religiosity in the political sphere of an individual’s social life. In today’s political culture, religion does maintain some form of influence on both sides of the major political parties. Studies have shown that the basis of one’s partisanship does aid in the determination of their religious beliefs and vice versa (Niskanen Center, 2018). The Pew Research Center further explains this theory when acknowledging that strong religious and ethical values have typically been correlated with the conservative Republican Party whereas more liberal and progressive views have been attributed to the Democratic coalition (Lipka, 2019). This can be an identifiable struggle amongst religious Americans because they must balance their spiritual values while also determining which political standards best fit their identity. Hence the fact that the Democratic party is becoming less religious due to many young adults steering away from traditional religion and adopting more secular principles and identities (Niskanen Center, 2018). Nonetheless, this concern does vary amongst religious people and it is ultimately left to the individual whether they will compromise their religiosity in order to conform to society’s idea of a more liberal and progressive outlook on policies and human life in general.
Religion is one of the most complex and multifaceted topics to be analyzed because it is mainly an internal and spiritual experience, though there are social aspects within it as well. Furthermore, it can be difficult to measure its effects on an individual’s emotional well-being and the contribution to one’s overall life satisfaction and happiness because these results are ambiguous and based on the interpretation of that individual. However, studies dating back to the 1900s have proved religion to be a popular topic in regard to it’s effect on well-being and society collectively. With all factors considered the largest impact religiosity and spirituality has on an individual is regarding one’s mental health and their social interactions within the community. When observing the implications that revolve around religion affecting mental health there are precautions needed to be taken into consideration in order for the practicing of religion to be healthy and beneficial to the individual. When practiced for the wrong reasons religion can become no more than a stepping stone in achieving one’s ideal social status amongst their peers. However, when taken into proper perspective and through honorable motives religion can become a central role in one’s identity and help in maintaining a positive mindset when dealing with stressful and uncontrollable circumstances that all humans must endure (Ventis, 1995). Additionally, it has served in improving the mental stability of patients suffering with mental and medical illnesses.
In relation to the social and communal impact on religion it can be stressful to balance one’s spiritual convictions with controversial political issues and that is a struggle most Christians and religiously affiliated Americans will have to cope with in today’s ever growing secular society. However, advice in this conflicting issue could be found in religious support groups, churches, and foundations that provide assistance in religious individuals personal, familial, and spiritual life. The benefits of religion cannot be denied when analyzing it’s positive effects on marriages, children and youth, and also in creating a healthy and stable home environment. Religion has consistently proven to give life meaning, hope, and purpose for those who follow it. I have ultimately found that when used or the internal gain as the Dalai Lama emphasized, religion does positively affect one’s well-being by creating an everlasting joy from within that is not dependent on external variables and helps to achieve overall life satisfaction and happiness.