The Power to Uplift

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

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But people can benefit from spirituality without subscribing to a particular doctrine. Kim Garretson, 54, a marketing executive from Minneapolis, Minn., was raised an Episcopalian but refused to get confirmed at age 13 and hasn't practiced since. But he experienced a spiritual revival after he was told he had advanced prostate cancer three years ago. He credits his Christian friends' prayers and laying on of hands with helping him. He also saw an alternative religious healer who practiced a method called the healing touch, something Garretson would have scoffed at before his illness. Not only did Garretson's health improve dramatically, but also his entire life was transformed. Now Garretson says he's a spiritual person, feeling more connected to others and the world around him, although he has no desire to join any formal religion. His wife calls him Giddy Boy. "I'm in a state of exuberance," he says. "Before, I was living my life on autodrive. Today my mind is devoted to sharing the exuberance of life--spending time with my wife and kids, starting my own nonprofit to reach out to men with prostate cancer. I actually walk around with a lighter step because of my connectedness to things spiritual."

All that doesn't necessarily leave nonbelievers down in the dumps. Atheists and agnostics who follow some framework of belief--be it secular humanism or pure science--can derive benefits similar to what others gain from religion. And the blessings of community support and love are also available to doubters. In a far-ranging study that followed 724 men over seven decades, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant found that some of the men whose lives were "most blessed with loving and fulfilling relationships" were completely unreligious. Meanwhile, in his private practice, Vaillant found that "three of the most religious patients I've had were victims of severe parental abuse. Often it's those most in trouble who shift to a more spiritual stance."

Like all research that's based on surveys, studies of faith and happiness depend on the candor of participants. Some researchers question professions of happiness by the devout. "Maybe as religious people, they feel obliged to say they're happy because if they don't, they might be perceived as less faithful," says Cohen. After all, Christianity holds joy as evidence of God. In short, some people who attribute their happiness to religion may be allowing doctrine to tint the truth. But then again, it's hard to refute the Karen Grangers of this world--serene and smiling through a vale of tears. ???

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