Soon after Jong Hyun Jung, a graduate student of sociology at Purdue University, first immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea, he noticed the importance of religion in the American culture in what people said and did.
"The vast majority of Americans believe in a personal engagement with God," he said. "I heard, 'God is my copilot,' or 'All things are possible in Christ.’”
So he decided to study the connection between religion and mental health, focusing on a sense of divine involvement in a person's life, which he explained as feeling that God intervenes in your life for your well-being.
Jung's 2015 study, published in a recent issue of the quarterly Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, found that a sense of divine involvement increases a sense of meaning in life among Christians.
"Close relationships provide human beings with a sense of meaning because (they) are fundamentally social creatures," Jung said, discussing relationships with family and friends. "That relationship can extend to relationships between humans and the Divine."
Sensing that God is intervening in your life can be a source of empowerment, increase self-esteem and subsequently increase sense of meaning in life, Jung said. According to the study, a single unit increase in sense of divine involvement increases the odds of having a sense of meaning in life by 58.6 percent.
However, the study's results were unique to Christians, Jung said, because of the emphasis that "God is intimately involved in the lives of the faithful."
"Non-Christian religions may differ from Christian faiths in terms of concepts of God, the extent to which beliefs about divine involvement play a central role in religious thought and practice, and the relevance of religious beliefs to mental health," Jung wrote.
A sense of purpose
Drawing from a national 2007 Baylor religion survey of 1,648 American adults, Jung's dependent variable was based on respondents' level of agreement with the statement, "My life has a real purpose."
Respondents were asked, "Based on your personal understanding, what do you think God is like?" They were then asked their level of agreement with the statements, "God is concerned with my personal well-being," and "God is directly involved in my affairs."
"Overall, the findings in the study have implications for the relationship between religion and mental health," Jung wrote. "Whereas past research focused primarily on measures of religious involvement and their impact on mental health, this study suggests that religious beliefs — especially beliefs about God's involvement — are equally important."
Catherine Sanderson, a professor of psychology at Amherst College, witnessed the power of a strong relationship with God firsthand when her stepfather lost two wives and a daughter to cancer.
The son of a minister and on the board of a seminary, Sanderson's stepfather is highly religious, and she said this helped him make it through the tough times of his life. While the loss of family deeply impacted him, today he is happy, healthy and remarried as he is approaching his 80th birthday celebration.
"He has a very strong belief in the afterlife, so the loss to him is separation, but also 'I'm going to see these people again,’” she said. "The belief that those people are still with him in some way, that this is temporary as opposed to forever."
According to Sanderson, there are two schools of thought on the religion-happiness link: that religion gives a sense of power and control of the world, and that it provides a segue into a strong social network.
"Simply having a belief that if you pray someone is listening, things happen for a reason, there is an after life — that leads to positive association," Sanderson said. "Religion (also) makes you happy because it gives you like-minded people who support you."
These schools of thought have been exhibited through a multitude of studies that have found similar correlations between some form of religiosity and happiness.
A 2014 study conducted by The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture conducted a survey, finding that 45 percent of Americans who attend religious services on a weekly basis report being very happy, as opposed to 28 percent of those who never attend.
In addition, a 2011 Baylor University study unearthed a correlation between spirituality and mental health, finding that people who attend religious services several times a week have the lowest-reported number of mental health issues.
Despite the multiple studies that prove a strong relationship between religiosity and happiness, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found that unaffiliated Americans have risen by 6.7 percent since 2007.
Stephen Cranney, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Pennsylvania, said the increase in unaffiliated does not necessarily mean happiness and mental health will decrease.
"It looks like the rise of nones is coming from people who weren’t that religious anyway, but they are nominally affiliated with certain religions," he said. "It’s not so much that people are losing their faith, it’s just people who aren’t religious in the first place are flipping their labels."
Regardless of labels, many people unaffiliated with religion still believe in God, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study. The report found that of the then 46 million unaffiliated adults in the U.S., 68 percent believe in God, and 21 percent pray every day.
"People develop sense of self through interactions with others," Jung said. "Your relationship with the deity or with the Divine is really important for your mental health and self view."
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