Church: The happiest place on earth

A new study says those who get out to church regularly on Sundays are less likely to be depressed

Church: The happiest place on earth

Rob Melnychuk/Getty Images

“Organized religion” hasn’t enjoyed very good press for the last 50 years. People only use the phrase when they mean to speak ill, as with “organized crime.” A lot of people remain quite keen on religion, or even unbelievingly convinced there are benefits from its existence; they are not so happy with the hint of menace and control that comes with the “organization” part.

But what if the “organized” bit in “organized religion” is actually the useful half? What if, as the philosopher Alain de Botton has been arguing lately, we would be better off dispensing with supernatural or mystical ideas but keeping the activities, the buildings, and the other external forms?

A weird but important new study out of the University of Saskatchewan’s psychiatry shop may serve to endorse this Bottonite impulse. The research on religion and mental health is a vast, contradictory mess that you can ransack for evidence of almost any hypothetical relationship. But doctors Lloyd Balbuena, Marilyn Baetz and Rudy Bowen have extracted new longitudinal data from a huge sample. They used repeated interviews of 12,583 people in the National Population Health Survey (NPHS), made over a period of 14 years, to check whether religion had any effect on the future incidence of major depression.

How do you measure religiousness? The Saskatchewan team had two different metrics to choose from. One was self-reported frequency of attendance at religious services. The NPHS allowed them to sort the sample into monthly-or-more attenders, occasional attenders who turn up less than once a month, and never-attenders. The other measurement was constructed from the answers to two direct questions asked of participants in the survey: “Do spiritual values or your faith play an important role in your life?” and “How religious or spiritual are you?”

As you might expect, the two variables—one a measure of religious activity, the other of religious sentiment or identity—turned out to be closely correlated, taking on similar values in most of the people who took the questionnaire. Because of that closeness, the researchers could not incorporate both variables in the same model at once. (It creates a statistical problem called “collinearity,” which I understand just well enough to think of two trains on the same track crashing together head-on. Collinearity bad.)

So when you ask whether frequent religious attendance protects against depression, after controlling for other factors like income, marital status, and prior history of depression, you find that it appears to. The future depression risk of monthly attendees was significantly (though not enormously) lowered—by about 22 per cent, compared to never-attendees. What may be most interesting about this finding is that one of the factors controlled for in the model was “social support.” Frequent churchgoers were not less depressed just because going to church (or mosque or temple) gave them someone to confide in, count on, or consult with. Those things defend against depression too, but the benefit from church attendance is independent of them.

The weird part is that when you change models, plugging in the religious-identity variable instead of the attendance variable, there is no benefit left. Doing religion is linked with a lower risk of depression; being religious isn’t. This echoes a finding made by Baetz’s team in 2006, when they found that “worship frequency” was negatively associated with a range of psychiatric problems—depression, mania, panic disorder, social phobia—but spiritual identity was positively associated with most of them.

That leaves the implications foggy. The apparent psychic benefits from going to church don’t seem to inhere in the beliefs or attitudes inculcated there—but the model also factors out purely social effects of churchgoing. There seems to be something about the mere showing up that makes one less likely to become depressed. Of course, even a longitudinal study, particularly one based on self-reports, can’t eliminate questions of causality. Maybe A doesn’t determine B, but both are determined by C; the kind of person who can drag himself to Mass reasonably often may be the gloom-resistant, constitutionally robust kind.

I suspect something like this is the case, and it makes me wish we could run a properly controlled experiment using what doctors call a “sham intervention.” Make a bunch of atheists turn up in person someplace every seven days, to perform various non-believing rituals and maybe have some coffee, and contrast those who stick closely to the regimen with equally assiduous church attendees. It might, in fact, look much like de Botton’s oddball plans for atheist temples, feasts, and Sunday schools.

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh

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Church: The happiest place on earth

  1. That’s fair. Most of the tenants of religion are unobjectionable and even positive, and it never hurts to spend time with those in your community. Of the religious stuff that we still do today, it’s only the gay hate, anti-abortion and complete lack of empirical evidence for it’s central figure that are really objectionable, anyway.

    • of course i mean tenEnts.

      • It’s clear what you mean but I believe it’s tenets.
        Tenents is Chechen for tenants :) …

        • holy* crap you are right! I have been misspelling it ALL THESE YEARS and not just in the first post. well i guess i learned something today.

          *HOLY crap? get it? geit it?

          • Proof of the benefit derived from frequent and faithful attendance at “The Church of Maclean’s with Reverend Cosh.”

          • Likely mispronouncing it too. The English language is very complex. I read somewhere that words are spelled the way they are (often strangely) to facilitate easier reading of the language. I am not sure if that is accurate or not but it is very interesting none the less.

    • You’re conflating religion with Christianity.

      Also, the general consensus among scholars of early Christianity is that Jesus was an historical figure. Even the atheists in the group I know agree, so it’s not a matter of faith. The details of his life are not viewed with as much confidence, obviously.

      • Yes, I took a western religions course. Jesus was a historical figure. However, the bible is not really an accurate “historical” portrayal of what took place, even in terms of the names of people and their relationships to one another. The religious people in the course were quite upset because they kept confusing theology with history….what the believers believe with what the scholars can prove.

  2. Depression usually stems from a fear of the unknown, especially after death. Church goers believe they know where they are going. They dont need to explore the issues that often cause fear and kick-start the chemical process

    • Depression does not usually stem from fear of the unknown, it usually stems from social problems – poverty, relationship or family issues, lack of good social supports (i.e. friends), lousy jobs, being over worked/stressed for long periods of time, etc.

      Furthermore, if what you say about church-goers believing they know what happens after death were true, you’d see a correlation between belief and less depression, which the article says doesn’t exist.

      • There are different kinds of depression. Some are due to chemical imbalances in the brain. Others can be related to situations such as stress, etc.
        How people handle a depression is often related to the strength of their social supports. Some people with few social supports tend to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. They are also more likely to attempt suicide.

        • I think it would be hard to really show that it comes from chemical imbalances in the brain. It might well be correlated with it, but determining causality is another issue altogether, and one that we should be careful about because it both suggests a very specific course of treatment (i.e. drugs) based on an assumed direction of causation, and it also can mask potential social causes.

          That’s not to say that it isn’t based in neuro-chemical imbalances, just that it’s very hard to tell cause from effect. But I totally agree with the rest of your comment.

          • Working in acute inpatient psychiatry for more than a decade and a half, I have to tell you that most of the major depressions I have encountered in patients have not come about in response to a crisis in the persons’ life. Rather these people have found themselves feeling hopeless and in most incidences suicidal with no real particular reason that they could pinpoint. Many of them had happy marriages, were financially secure and doing work they had always liked. They had become depressed and nothing in their life was worthwhile. They didn’t want to get out of bed. Things that had always been pleasurable, not longer held any allure. They felt guilty because they were fortunate in their lives but they didn’t want to go on living.
            Actually the theory is that some people don’t make as much serotonin as others (thus the genetic link in depression) and also that serotonin is not made in sufficient quantities when a person is under stress. Having said that, you are drawing incorrect conclusions about causes and treatment. Although medications like SSRI’s do stop the brain from re-uptaking serotonin, therefore letting a person keep more of the transmitter that they themselves make, it has been shown that therapy such as behavioral therapy is as successful in treating depression as medication is, even if a person does appear to have a problem with a lack of serotonin. Many psychiatrists take a combined approach of treating major depression with therapy and medication. People are typically only treated on medication for 6 months and then the medication is discontinued. Only those who get depressed again are re-started and they end up long-term on medication.
            Without question the quickest and most efficacious treatment for major depression is still electroconvulsive shock therapy. Most psychiatrists if asked would select this treatment hands down for themselves if they were to become depressed.

  3. The condescension that non-believers love to display toward believers continues unabated. People will still find their way toward God, luckily, to the great frustration of social scientists and media types.

    • I’m not frustrated that people find their way toward “God.” Good for them.
      But for those of us who don’t “see” it, what are we supposed to do? Keep at it until we “get” it? Fake it? Feel inadequate? Seek a fearful and desperate repentance on our death beds?
      I see beauty all around me: in nature, in art, in people, in life.
      I also see a whole lot of “ugly,” and more than a little of it is due to the influence of religion and the misguided(?) belief “God’s” hand guides their actions.
      Perhaps you will say “tis mankind’s folly, not God’s.” Perhaps every point has a counterpoint?
      I feel it is somewhat like politics in that most tend to accept the reasoning of those they choose to follow.
      We all have our beliefs, our boundaries, our codes and our truths. Mine are no better than yours, nor are they any worse either.

      • Spiritualism does not have to involve a “God”. First Nation’s people have a spiritualism that many seem to respect. I believe we can all agree to respect one another’s choices.

        • I agree wholeheartedly

      • Well said Pickingrin.

  4. I’m wondering if data involving 12-step programs might be useful here. A person very close to me who is a sober alcoholic, intensely intellectual, emphasizes that the important thing about the program is going to the meetings. Do it every day and you have a good chance of being sober the next day. Or not, and not. Then there’s all the AA ideology which has a smell of early-twentieth-century weirdness and is hard to take all that seriously.

    • 12 step programs are very much like a religious community on a smaller scale. I don’t quite know what you mean about the early 20th century weirdness of AA. It is really a group of people who are brought together by the destruction that an addiction has wrought in their lives. They find it easier to stay sober by leaning on others who are going through what they are. It is a very successful program and it is completely self-funded and self-administered. I know people who have been sober alcoholics for over 50 years thanks to AA. They don’t go to weekly meetings anymore but they are still available for people who are looking for help.

  5. What you are describing about “the attending church part’ being the determinant in how happy people are is very much in line with the whole philosophy of how behavior therapy works. Behavioral therapy is a triangulation of thoughts behaviors and emotion. The theory is that if you change one of the three in the triangle, it will have a an effect on the other two. It is not easy to change a person’s thought pattern or their emotions. If one thinks they are worthless or if they are profoundly sad, it isn’t so easy to change their mind or cheer them up. However, we do know that behaviors such as going for a walk or joining in a community activity can make a person have positive thoughts and lead to happier emotions. The whole problem is that when depressed, people don’t tend to be motivated so in psychiatry we give them the nudge…hence the behavioral part of the therapy.
    Interestingly, there are two indicators that we in mental health use quite often to decide if a depressed person will likely have success and get better without hospitalization when they arrive at the emergency department with symptoms of depression. We assess: 1) their previous coping mechanisms..how have they done in the past coping with stressful problems and 2) their support system. A strong sense of community like you find in an organized church bodes well for them.

  6. Great stuff Colby, thanks. I was a frequent church attender as an undergraduate, because I lived in a religious college and so often had friends preaching or just attending, and I like to sing and get together with friends and drink coffee afterwards, so why not? It was a very pleasant sort of social round, and people are often at their best at church, and while I don’t miss it I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a good, mainline church to non-believers who lack a good social outlet (and often have over the years).

  7. While I never plan to step foot inside another church or place of “organized religion”, I can see why any religious establishment could and likely does lower depression and aids one in getting their lives or situations to seem better.

    It came from a debate I had with a friend, we were trying with all our limited brain power to understand why anyone would pay for a gym membership… gravity is all I need, But a gym does more than just give you the playthings to get in shape, it introduces new peers and like-minded individuals on a regular basis. As a paying member, you also feel obligated to go whether you really want to or not.

    If the experiment ignored focusing all their attention on religious vrs non religious, and broadened the view to any social club where the participants get to meet and greet with new and old friends, vrs those who are social introverts, and keep mainly to themselves, there would be no difference between a golf club, gym membership, drinks after work or a church on a persons level of depression.

  8. Just read the last paragraph again about running the study on a group of atheists.
    Maybe not all atheists,but definitely a mixed bag meeting weekly is your local service clubs such as Rotary. And as a very long serving member and simple observer,I would agree that the incidence of psychological problems are very low,as far as I can recognize the symptoms and manifestations.

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