New study finds faith, religion can help provide 'sustained happiness'

by Eun Kyung Kim /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Want to ensure you have happiness throughout your life? Religion may be the answer.

Joining a religious group could do more to provide “sustained happiness” than other types of social activities, like taking a class, volunteering for charity, or even playing sports, according to a new report.

Going to church, mosque or synagogue regularly often provides a more reliable boost in mental welfare than belonging to an active group like a book club, political organization or a sports team, according to research by the London School of Economics and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

“The church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life,” said Mauricio Avendano, an epidemiologist with the study, which analyzed 9,000 Europeans, all of whom were older than 50, over a four-year period.

American psychologist Jennifer Harstein said the findings were not surprising. Religion tends to have longer lasting power than other types of activities for many people, she said.

“Our religious affiliation is something that’s longer term. You can go, you can leave, it’s always there,” she said Monday on TODAY. “It’s sustained, like the happiness, whereas a sports group ends. It might be seasonal. Or a volunteer opportunity might end.”

She also said that religion tends to reach a deeper level for individuals.

“We know that spirituality is something that really helps people feel like they find that higher power, they find that center, that groundedness, that can be anything for anybody,” she said. “We know meditation, mindfulness — all those kinds of things help change our brain chemistry, help us be less depressed, less anxious, and more centered and that is all good for all of us.”

The LSE study also found that religion also helped ease symptoms of depression and help the sick cope better with their illness. Harstein said that's because houses of worship often help lesson burdens for people.

“We can go there and say, 'Okay, help me through this' and kind of hand it over, and that relieves us through some of that intense pain that we might be carrying around when we’re ill or when there’s death or dying in our lives,” she said.

The full report can be found at the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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