Awhile back “Time” Magazine published some fascinating articles on the “biology of belief”: how faith can heal us. Folks who attend church services on Sunday have a lower risk of dying in any one year than the guys who sleep in, read the paper, and skip all holy activities. “Spirituality predicts for better disease control,” says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief.
Okay. So how? What exactly happens in a brain when a person sings “Alleluia!” that makes her more resilient to illness than the nonbeliever? Here are 8 ways faith can heal.
1. Faith provides social support.
Not surprisingly, a major reason why regular churchgoers have half the risk of dying over the next eight years as people who skip religious services is due to the social support gained by a church community. One consistent happiness key is weaving a network of support for yourself. We all need a security net. If you go to church regularly, and especially if you get involved in your parish or church community, that social support is provided. Also, regular churchgoers are more likely to GIVE support to others, and this act of generosity–any altruistic activity, really–promotes better health.
2. Faith engages the senses.
I never thought about it this way until reading the quote by Ted Kaptchuk, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in the “Time” article. He says, “Religious belief is not just a mind question but involves the commitment of one’s body as well. The sensory organs, tastes, smells, sounds, music, the architecture of religious buildings [are involved].”
He’s so right. That’s why, when I’m in a bad place, I often go sit in an empty church and find comfort there, looking at the stained-glass windows, the sapphire ceiling with stars, the wooden stations of the cross, and the statues of the saints. I will light a few votive candles, for all my intentions, and also for those whose intentions got accidentally blown out last Sunday by my kids. This sensory experience is also why I’m brought to tears at Christmas time when I hear a beautiful version of “O Holy Night.”
3. Faith reinforces a belief system.
Did you know that you’re happier and healthier when you think that you’re right (regardless of whether or not you really are).
Think about the last fight you had with your family. If you and your sister “won” it (your brother got down on his knees … “I was so very wrong”), you know that primal feeling of superiority that I’m talking about: the one that apes experience, and insecure people like myself. But the apes and immature folks are merely confirming a theory that positive psychologists have known for a long time: that people bond when they hold common opinions and beliefs, and this kind of bonding leads to happiness. It’s like a positive gossip session.
Church is all about this kind of bonding. You believe that God sent his only son so that we might have life and have it more abundantly? ME TOO! Get out!
4. Faith provides good laws to live by.
Religion and spirituality do what a parent or supervisor at work does: give you 10 laws to abide by. And, although you may stick out your tongue at those regulations and try to break a few of them, you are actually glad that they exist, because, for the most part, your life runs more smoothly when you follow them. These expectations, or dogmas, keep you on track. In an interview with Beliefnet, Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center said this:
Some of the things we’d like to get rid of in religion–the dogma, the laws–may be the ingredients that result in better health. You should have only one spouse, you shouldn’t cheat on your spouse, you shouldn’t get involved in Internet pornography–all that’s forbidden. We learned that if people get involved in doing those things they risk their health. Whether it’s a sin in a spiritual sense or not, it’s bad for them. So these rules and regulations and laws–love your neighbor and help your neighbor and give your neighbor–are good for us.
5. Faith attaches meaning to events.
Here’s how scripture benefits my health: it offers me plenty of examples of how some very bad situations (think Job) were redeemed in the end, and that all the suffering actually had a purpose, that there was some greater good that came out of it. I cling to that very message on my darker days. I have to trust that my night won’t last forever, that there will always be a light in the distance, and that God will carry me there if I get too weak to walk.
My faith gives me hope.
And hope, doctors say, is about the best thing you can do for your body. It’s better than a placebo.
6. Faith inspires gratitude.
Doctors have always said the optimists fare better in surgery and combating any type of illness than pessimists. Gratitude, like humor, boosts your immune system, make you more resilient to stress, counters depression and anxiety, and helps to lower your production of cortisol, the hormone that is bad news all around.
Faith motivates gratitude in that it reminds a person to count her blessings and to thank God often for them. Spirituality and religion also encourage a broader perspective of the world–of global needs–and in doing so foster a deeper appreciation of our circumstances.
7. Faith encourages fasting.
Most religious traditions incorporate some cleansing fast as a ritual: Catholics have Lent, Jews have Yom Kippur, Muslims have Ramadan, and so forth. Fasting has spiritual benefits, of course–some believers can achieve a temporary state of clarity and peace by abstaining from certain foods or limiting their caloric intake–but the physiological impact is profound, as well, because these fasts are a way for the body to purge toxins.
8. Faith changes the brain.
Engaging in prayer and meditation can actually change your brain. Say what? Explains Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger:
Long-term meditators–those with 15 years of practice or more–appear to have thicker frontal lobes than nonmeditators. People who describe themselves as highly spiritual tend to exhibit an asymmetry in the thalamus–a feature that other people can develop after just eight weeks of training in meditation skills.