The Power to Uplift

Religious people are less stressed and happier than nonbelievers. Research is beginning to explain why

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Judy Lederman, 42, a modern Orthodox Jew from Scarsdale, N.Y., has consciously added religious responsibilities to her daily life. Such restraints, she believes, keep her in check emotionally. Though raised Jewish, Lederman rebelled against her parents as a teenager. It wasn't until after the birth of her third child eight years ago that Lederman returned to her religious roots. "I realized my life was missing something, and I needed solid ground under my feet," she recalls. Life was seeming increasingly complex and chaotic. One of her children received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Lederman had gained about 80 pounds, which she attributes to stress. She felt moody and adrift. Bit by bit, she began to add religion and ritual to her life. She started to attend synagogue regularly and exercised while listening to spiritual music. She decided to keep a kosher kitchen and observe the Sabbath. "Happiness isn't a constant for anyone, but I feel more at peace and balanced now," she says. "I absolutely feel more satisfied with my life."

Religion's contribution to well-being appears to be nearly universal across various faiths and ethnic groups, although, not surprisingly, studies suggest that those who are single, elderly or in poor health gain the most. Still, faith seems to succor the young as well. A 2003 national study involving 3,300 adolescents found that teens who attend services, read the Bible and pray feel less sad or depressed, less alone, less misunderstood and guilty and more cared for than their nonreligious peers.

Does religious affiliation make a difference? Apparently so. In their 2003 study of adults 55 and older in North Carolina, Adam Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Dan Hall, an Episcopal priest at Duke, found that Protestants reported slightly higher levels of well-being than Catholics did and significantly higher levels than Jews did. Cohen says such differences may be explained in part by the fact that Protestants voiced a greater belief in an afterlife than did Jews. Another possible factor: the stresses of being a minority. Additionally, Cohen's study suggests that Protestants derive relatively more joy from their internal faith in God, whereas Jews and Catholics draw more comfort from their religious communities.

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