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Why Are Religious People Healthier and Happier? | Rabbi Darren Levin

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Transcript: Ideas of the science of religion are complicated. God is difficult to bring into the laboratory, and it is very hard to quantify the sacred, but science is beginning to ask questions about the results or the consequences of participating in religious life. Questions like: does participating in a religious community, does having faith in God, does engaging in a process of building a relationship with the divine, do those questions add positivity to people’s lives?
And the research is conclusive, and the research shows that yes, a person who participates in a faith community, who has a relationship with God, and who is on a quest for purpose, that their lives are better and that they do scale higher in the tests of well-being and happiness.
Does that mean it is because as they engage in a process of discovering their faith and deepening their relationship with the God that it is reciprocated on high? I don’t know; that it is very hard to quantify. But what we do know is that people who participate actively in faith community, they have a higher standard of health and that might be because within religious communities, in the best-case scenario, the teachings and the wisdom and the practices are about things like family, personal responsibility, making a positive impact in the world, helping others, deepening relationships; and all of those practices do add a positive value to a person’s life. And so the reactions or the consequences for participating in a faith community do add positive value and well-being and life satisfaction to people’s lives.

Positive psychology got its start from the awareness that the field was focused too much on people’s weaknesses and not their strengths, and so Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson worked to shift the way psychology is practiced, rather than think of someone and their problems we think of someone and their strengths, and we try to develop of those strengths, try to see the best in people. Everybody has signature strengths, and we want to focus and help them develop those and in developing those it helps to shore-up some of their weaknesses.

In a communal setting, expanding on the inventory, we try to apply the same characteristics that are articulated for individuals but we try to put them into practice in a communal setting. And in a community setting is where Judaism lends itself beautifully to applying the inventory of strengths and characteristics.

So the intersection of where positive psychology and the science of happiness intersect with positive religion and positive Judaism really live at the intersection of PERMA. PERMA is an acronym, which stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. So let’s take each of these five domains and see them in the context of religious practice. So we’ll start with P, positive emotion.

In a best-case scenario you think about a sanctuary or an amphitheater setting where faith communities gather, and there are messages of hope, there are soothing melodies, there’s good music, there’s fellowship, and all of those combined together are designed to raise the positive emotion in someone’s life.

And I can tell you that when I travel I go to different churches, synagogues, mosques—over the summer I was in Iceland and I went to a Episcopal church in Reykjavík where the entire ceremony was spoken in Icelandic and I didn’t understand a word, but over the course of an hour and a half I felt my energy level shift and I walked out of that chapel feeling more positive, and it has to do with the environment. So positive emotions are raised by participating in faith community.

The accomplishment of making the world a better place, now that is a core teaching in Judaism—the idea of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world and making it a better place, and having that as a goal to accomplish both for individuals and as a collective religious community—all that combined together in PERMA seems to be the perfect application of this theory of positive psychology. And religious settings, I believe, are that perfect application, that perfect place to see and to live the theory of PERMA and positive psychology.

Now there’s more than just PERMA in positive Judaism and positive religion, there’s also a studied set of characteristics and strengths that come directly from the work of Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, who in the 1990s developed an inventory of strengths.

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