In a recent USA Today article, “Religion may be a miracle drug,” Harvard Professor of Epidemiology Tyler VanderWeele lays out the accumulated evidence for a bold claim: regular religious participation is good for us.1
While the effect may be seen across different religious traditions, most studies anchor on church attendance. In addition to a higher life expectancy, those who attend services at least once a week are more optimistic and have lower rates of depression and suicide.
The relationship between faith and human flourishing is undoubtedly complex. But the findings of modern psychological research may give us some insight. Here are 10 areas where biblical insights seem to align with how humans are actually wired:
1. We need a framework for freedom
In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observes that “choice and its frequent associate freedom are the unquestioned goods of modern life.”2 He goes on to describe the studies that challenge this assumption. Maximizing individual freedom – both in terms of our number of options and of our ability to delay commitment – does not maximize happiness. Rather, too much freedom induces anxiety and leaves us less satisfied. Christianity has historically been a movement for freedom and against coercion. But the Christian worldview gives us boundaries and promotes commitment – which turns out to be key to contentment. Rather than leaving us to construct our identity and morality from the ground up, Christianity offers us a moral and relational framework within which to exercise our freedom. As MIT Professor Ian Hutchinson – who became a Christian when he was a student at Cambridge University – puts it:
“The fundamental assumption in the intellectual West today is that there is no reality beyond what natural science discovers and that there is no authority or good higher than the freedom of the individual. Both science and individual freedom are good. But followers of Jesus, like me, have a different view. We believe that both the deepest reality and the highest moral meaning, good, and authority are to be found in loving relationship.”
2. Money isn’t the key to happiness
The 2015 American Freshman Survey asked thousands of incoming students about their goals and aspirations.3 The highest proportion (81.9%) checked “becoming very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” life objective. But research indicates that if we pin our hopes of happiness on money, we are likely to be disappointed. While the literature is complex, there is good evidence to suggest that beyond a basic level of security, increased wealth is only slightly correlated with an increased sense of wellbeing, and the correlation tails off after $75,000.4 As Jonathan Haidt observes,
“Wealth itself has only a small direct effect on happiness because it so effectively speeds up the hedonic treadmill… As the level of wealth has doubled or tripled in the last fifty years in many industrialized nations, the levels of happiness and satisfaction with life that people report have not changed, and depression has actually become more common.” 5
In biblical terms, the pursuit of happiness through wealth is seen as detrimental to human thriving. Money itself is not evil and earning money with the goal of serving others can be a God-given calling. But Jesus warns his followers that loving money is dangerous and that selfish pursuit of wealth is bad for us: we “cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
3. Pursuit of success leaves us empty
As educated, high-achievers, we orient our lives around success. But as we progress in life, we discover that the happiness pay-off of success is often disappointing.6 As Haidt puts it,
“You dream of getting a promotion, being accepted into a prestigious school, or finishing a big project. You work every waking hour, perhaps imagining how happy you will be if you could just achieve that goal. Then you succeed, and if you’re lucky you get an hour, maybe a day, of euphoria.”7
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert agrees:
“From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.” 8
Making progress toward our goals does give us a sense of fulfillment, but the achievement of our dreams often leaves us feeling empty. Bill Tate, Vice Provost of Education at Washington University, experienced this first-hand in his student days:
“I kind of hit rock bottom doing it my way. Even though the world thought I was successful, I felt like it was empty: there was nothing there. And I began asking more questions about God, and what is all this about?”
In response to his disciples’ drive for status and success, Jesus offered them a counter-cultural ethic: “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
4. Relationships drive flourishing
Psychological research indicates that close, committed relationships are the strongest driving factor in happiness. Robert Waldinger directs the The Harvard Study of Adult Development. For 75 years, the study tracked the lives of 724 men. Waldinger summarizes the findings:
“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”9
This was not intuitive 75 years ago, and it is not now. Waldinger observes that,
“Just like the millennials in that recent survey, many of our men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they needed to go after to have a good life. But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”
Christian ethics places love at the center of the well-lived life: not a self-serving feeling-based love, but the active, self-giving love modeled and commanded by Jesus. This kind of love is “patient, kind, not envious or boasting, not dishonoring to others or self-seeking, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs, not delighting in evil but rejoicing in truth, protecting, trusting, hoping, persevering” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). And this call to love is not limited to a romantic relationship or nuclear family. Rather, it is a call to deep community that extends the ethos of family to a diverse community of “brothers and sisters.”
5. Service brings fulfillment
The Bible calls us to live lives oriented around service and giving. It goes so far as to make the counter-intuitive claim that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Research has shown that serving others has a significant positive impact on mental health and that those who are actively caring for and supporting others often thrive more than those who are receiving care.10 Of course, many non-religious people are passionately engaged in giving and serving and many religious people live self-centered lives. But as Haidt (himself an atheist) observes, faith does seem to foster generosity and service:
“Surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people… Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood.”11
Before his last meal with his disciples, Jesus dressed himself as a servant and took the servant role of washing his disciples’ feet. They were stunned by this upending of status. Jesus explained,
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13-14).
Jesus concluded, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).
6. Any work can be a calling
Modern psychology has shown that humans need meaningful work to thrive: we need a sense that we are doing something productive in the world. So what makes work meaningful? While we often assume that jobs with high pay or cultural status are the most rewarding, recent research has shown that how we approach our work can be as important as the nature of the work itself. If we see our work as a job we do for a paycheck, we will tend to find it unsatisfying. If we put our heart into our work and see it as a calling that resonates with our values, connects us to people, and fits within a bigger vision, we will experience joy. One study observed the attitudes of janitors emptying bedpans and cleaning up vomit in a hospital. Those who saw themselves as part of a team caring for the sick and who went above and beyond to do their job with excellence derived satisfaction from their role, while those who simply sought to do the job to get a paycheck did not.12 UPenn Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth tells the parable of the bricklayers to illustrate this:
Three bricklayers are asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’ The second says, ‘I am building a church.’ The third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’ The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.”13
The Bible pictures humans as created to be in relationship with God and others, and to delight in meaningful work. In the cultural settings in which the Bible was first written, few people had the freedom to choose what kind of work they did. But they could choose how they worked. In the New Testament, Christians living in slavery are encouraged that even their work can be a calling: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for humans” (Colossians 3:23). Christians are to work with all their hearts, as an act of worship – whether their job is designing the building or sweeping the floor; whether it’s performing heart surgery or cleaning up vomit.
7. We can find contentment in all circumstances
Modern psychology has shown that we humans have a highly developed ability to synthesize happiness. Harvard Psychology Professor Dan Gilbert calls this our “psychological immune system.” To illustrate the point, he quotes the 17th century polymath Thomas Browne:
“I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.”14
Gilbert asks, “What kind of remarkable machinery does this guy have in his head? Well, it turns out it’s precisely the same remarkable machinery that all of us have.” But Gilbert does not note that Browne was speaking from a specifically Christian perspective. Writing from prison to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul explained,
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13).
Gilbert goes on to highlight other individuals who have found joy in adversity, including Moreese Bickham, an African-American man who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent 37 years in prison. On his release, Bickham said:
Again, Gilbert does not observe that Bickham was sustained in prison by his Christian faith. In fact, he saw his suffering as the catalyst for his faith: “I never had a personal relationship with [God] until I was laying at the point of death with a bullet shot [in the] top of my heart.”16 Of course, the ability to manufacture happiness is not limited to followers of Jesus. But there is a remarkable correspondence between the psychological immune system Dan Gilbert describes and the biblical mindset.
8. Self-control and perseverance help us thrive
Our modern orientation is often toward believing in our giftedness and pursuing self-fulfillment rather than struggling through adversity because of our commitments and exercising self-control. UPenn Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth has analyzed predictors of success across a range of fields and concluded:
“One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.“17
Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” Modern psychology has shown that self-control is a key predictor of flourishing across a range of indexes, and that our ability to exercise self-control is linked to our self-concept and identity.18 The Bible compares life to a race that we must run with passion and perseverance and repeatedly calls Christians to grow in grit! For example, the apostle Peter urged his fellow Christians:
9. Gratitude is good for us
The Bible offers us a strange ethic: “rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks whatever happens.” This seems like unrealistic advice. But psychologists have discovered that conscious, daily gratitude is quite literally good for you. In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. UC-Davis Psychology Professor Robert Emmons started studying gratitude when he realized that it was “the forgotten factor in happiness research.”19
10. We need connection to something greater than ourselves
Part of the reason why regular church attendance is good for us arises from our need for community and the ways in which Christian ethics align with how we seem to be wired. But this is compounded by the human need for connection to something greater than ourselves. In Jonathan Haidt’s words,
“Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger.”20
That “something larger” might take various forms, but a sense of connection to God is, perhaps, its most visceral incarnation. Secular intellectual and School of Life founder Alain de Botton identifies an aspect of modern society that causes us anxiety:
“[Modern society has] nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves.”21
There is certainly truth to this observation. But it is also worth noting that as the world has modernized it has actually not become less religious. While the proportion of religious “nones” is growing in the US and Western Europe, the global picture is very different. The latest projections from the Pew Forum suggest that by 2050, Christianity will still be the most widespread belief-system, holding stable at just over 31%. Islam will have grown from 23% to nearly 30% and the proportion of the world without religious affiliation will have declined from 16% to 13%. Indeed, leading sociologist of religion Fenggang Yang, predicts that China will be home to as many Christians as America by 2030 and could be a majority-Christian country by 2050.22 MIT professor Rosalind Picard, who converted from atheism to Christianity in her teenage years, articulates her sense of connection to something greater than herself like this:
“All this worldly success pales completely in comparison to the greatest thing in my life: knowing and being known by the one who made it all.”
Reflecting on writing The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt recalls,
“When I began writing this book, I thought that Buddha would be a strong contender for the “Best Psychologist of the Last Three Thousand Years” award. To me, his diagnosis of the futility of striving felt so right, his promise of tranquility so alluring. But in doing research for the book, I began to think that Buddhism might be based on an overreaction, perhaps even an error.”23
The overreaction Haidt notices is in the Buddhist orientation away from striving and suffering. While there is much wisdom to be drawn from each ancient religious tradition, there is remarkable correspondence between the ancient and often counter-intuitive wisdom of the Bible and findings of modern psychological research. Does this prove the truth of Christianity? No. But as Tyler VanderWeele challenges us:
“I really do think any educated person in America should, at some point, have critically examined the claims for Christianity and should be able to explain why he or she does, or does not, believe them.”
If our assumption is that Christianity – the largest and most diverse global belief system – doesn’t align with human thriving, we may need to think again.
Want to explore more? Watch this 2 min video clip of four Harvard and MIT professors on faith and intellectual curiosity.
- Tyler VanderWeele and John Siniff, “Religion may be a miracle drug,” USA Today. ↵
- Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006), 101. ↵
- Eagan, K., Stolzenberg, E. B., Bates, A. K., Aragon, M. C., Suchard, M. R., & Rios-Aguilar, C. (2015).The American freshman: National norms fall 2015. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA ↵
- See Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, et al., “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being,” PNAS 287, no. 38 (2010). ↵
- Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 89. ↵
- Quoted from Daniel Gilbert’s TED talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” Interestingly, happiness can lead to success (see this TED talk by Shawn Achor), but success often disappoints us as a route to happiness. ↵
- Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 83. ↵
- Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (Vintage, 2007). ↵
- Robert Waldinger, “What makes a good life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness,” TED Talk. ↵
- See, for example, Susan Brown, et al., “Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: results from a prospective study of mortality,” Psychol Sci. 14, no 4 (2003): 320–7. ↵
- Jonathan Haidt, “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion,” Edge. ↵
- Bellah,R.,Madsen,R.,Sullivan,WM., Sidler, A., & Tipton, S. (1985). Habits of the heart. New York: Harper and Row. ↵
- Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Scribner, 2016), 149. ↵
- See Dan Gilbert’s TED talk, The Surprising Science of Happiness. Thomas Browne ends his famous work, Religio Medici with this prayer: “Blesse mee in this life with but peace of my conscience, command of my affections, the love of thy selfe and my dearest friends, & I shall be happy enough to pity Cæsar. These are O Lord the humble desires of my most reasonable ambition, and all I dare call happines on earth, wherein I set no rule or limit to thy hand or providence, dispose of me according to the wisdome of thy pleasure. Thy will be done though in my owne undoing.” ↵
- See Kevin Sack, “After 37 Years in Prison, Inmate Tastes Freedom,” New York Times. ↵
- See Dave Isay, “Former Death Row Prisoner Moreese Bickham Dies at 98: He Served 37 Years for Killing Klansmen Cops,” Democracy Now. ↵
- Angela Duckworth, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” TED Talk. ↵
- For more on the importance of self-regulation see, for example, Laurence Steinbeck, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence (Mariner Books, 2015) 16. ↵
- Bob Emmons, “Why study gratitude?” Vimeo. ↵
- Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 222. ↵
- See Alain de Botton, “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,” TED Talk. ↵
- See Fenggang Yang, “When Will China Become the World’s Largest Christian country?” Slate. ↵
- Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 102-3. ↵