Not many people could smile through what Karen Granger, 41, suffered last year. First, her husband Eric was laid off from his telecom job. Then in March, finally pregnant and eager to start a family, she had a miscarriage. One month later, her closest cousin Sharon received a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer. No sooner did Granger return from visiting Sharon in Tower Lakes, Ill., than two hurricanes smacked her hometown of Boynton Beach, Fla. Finally, in early December one of her best friends died at age 50 from a brain tumor. After that, she found herself asking, "Why, God? Why?"
But Granger, a devout Christian who attends Presbyterian services weekly and prays daily, doesn't allow circumstances to get her down. "We're not in heaven yet," she says, "and these things happen on this earth." Granger credits religion with helping her cope and giving her a feeling of connection and purpose. "We're putting our lives in God's hands and trusting he has our best interests at heart," she says. "I've clung to my faith more than ever this year. As a consequence, I haven't lost my joy."
Comfort and joy. Inner peace. A sense of well-being. Sacred texts and sermons have long promised such rewards to the faithful. Now the rigor of scientific research is being applied to this seemingly ineffable tenet of religious belief. According to Dr. Harold Koenig, a co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, from 2000 to 2002 more than 1,000 scholarly articles on the relationship between religion and mental health were published in academic journals--as opposed to just 100 from 1980 to 1982. Such studies indicate that religion buffers its adherents from worry. Religious people are less depressed, less anxious and less suicidal than nonreligious people. And they are better able to cope with such crises as illness, divorce and bereavement. Even if you compare two people who have symptoms of depression, says Michael McCullough, an associate professor of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami, "the more religious person will be a little less sad."
Chances are, he'll also be a little happier. Studies show that the more a believer incorporates religion into daily living--attending services, reading Scripture, praying--the better off he or she appears to be on two measures of happiness: frequency of positive emotions and overall sense of satisfaction with life. Attending services has a particularly strong correlation to feeling happy, and religious certainty--the sense of unshakable faith in God and the truth of one's beliefs--is most closely linked with life satisfaction
The question is why. To find out, researchers have begun to examine nationwide data and conduct smaller in-depth studies asking people what they believe and why they pray. We know religion's benefits can be roughly divided into four areas: social support, spiritual support, a sense of purpose and meaning and the avoidance of risky and stressful behaviors.