Religion Makes People Happier—But Why?

While it provides many health benefits, pinning down the precise effects of belief in God is difficult.

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Janet Ramsey, a pastor and theology professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., sees such symbols as part of a broader religious narrative that undoubtedly adds support and meaning to people's lives. In her research, she says, "people in a faith tradition find ways for their lives to intersect with that larger narrative" and a "much deeper, symbolic life."

"There is power there that gives meaning to life, and it also helps people as they get older with their self-identity and aging," Ramsey adds. "It makes you feel like you are part of an ongoing relationship that is bigger than yourself." In her research, she adds, being in a religious organization was not more beneficial in this regard than being spiritual but not active in an organized religion.

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Feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves can be tremendously comforting and supportive, Schieman agrees. "There's an assumption that most people want to feel that there's a sense of order, a sense of certainty [in life] rather than a cold randomness," he says. "Religion provides answers to a lot of these questions and if not answers, at least a big answer: There is God. There is a sense of meaning."

This sense of support produces great comfort and help to people as they get older, and especially as they near the end of their lives, Ramsey says. "The approach of death, coupled with a loss of control during the last days of life, can easily lead to anxiety and anger," she recently wrote. "Spirituality is one pathway among others that appears to mediate end-of-life anxiety by allowing older persons to remain peaceful, even when facing their own death and losing personal control."

Religion and spirituality also can help people achieve a sense of closure about their lives that includes a very important stage of forgiveness—to others, but also to themselves. "Some language and beliefs and rituals are provided [by religion] that help people with their needs for forgiveness," Ramsey says. "We finally make peace with the things we have done."