If you want be cheerful… avoid politics, join a church

Those pressing to join the Labour Party and vote for Jeremy Corbyn may not find this a route to happiness. A social study has given a resounding 'no' vote to political activism as a source of reward and happiness, and found that volunteering made little difference -- but church participation did.

A four-year Europe-wide study of 10,000 people over age 50 investigated social activities that made people less likely to be depressed. They were asked about whether they did voluntary work or education, took part in sports and social club activities or joined political parties -- or religious organisations.

The survey also recorded symptoms of depression such as poor sleep, appetite loss or suicidal thoughts.

Previous research had established a link between 'religious observance' and feeling happier without being sure of the cause. Could it be that people who believe in God are not the kind of people who tend to get depressed?

This latest study by London School of Economics researchers published in the American Journal of Epidemiology tried to eliminate the 'type' explanation by seeing how people handled life changes over time and whether there were associated changes in mental health and depressive symptoms.

After four years, volunteering and sports appeared to offer no measurable benefit.

LSE senior researcher Dr Mauricio Avendano said: "One of the more puzzling findings is that although healthier people are more likely to volunteer, we found no evidence that volunteering actually leads to better mental health. It may be that any benefits are outweighed by... negative impacts... such as stress."

Political organisations definitely made participants' lives unhappier, according to Dr Avendano, who pointed out that the sense of reward on first joining, if it involved a lot of effort and not much achievement, wore off.

The only activity to make a positive difference to people's well-being over time was religious activity, although Dr Avendano questioned whether this was down to the spiritual effect, or a result of the support and sense of community.

He said: "The church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life. It is not clear to us how much this is about religion per se, or whether it may be about the sense of belonging and not being socially isolated."

The study, as one would expect, took a broad view of 'religious observance'. I’m interested in this from a Christian perspective, although I distance myself a bit from ‘religious observance’ which can be dull and dry and not life-giving. As Christians (not the religious kind) we might have our own insights about having a personal relationship with God as a loving, forgiving Father, who speaks to us, guides us and continually reminds us that He is 'for' us – and how the spiritual dimension and the belonging and community dimension work powerfully together in a good, loving church. Where is hope found, and how does it contribute to joy and happiness? Dr Avendano's study was not intended to be so specific, but it points to what we know:
“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." Nehemiah 8:10

Not religious observance, and not just community. Knowing the Father personally by surrendering to Jesus.

Based on an article by Tom Whipple, Science Editor, The Times, August 5, 2015

Ian Greig

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