I've saved the best for last.
Inspired by David Brooks's article, "How America Got Mean," I am offering ten challenges for how we might resist the strong social tide toward nastiness and aggression. Each of these challenges is connected in some way to psychology, and with these final three I draw on the exciting and relatively new field of positive psychology.
Challenge #9: Hope
Challenge #10: Love
If these sound like the well-known Christian virtues, well yes, you have that right. And yes, I am a Christian. Faith has been a vital part of my life since the beginning. Still, this will be more about science than religion, though both will show up. But first...
The Self-Righteous Elephant in the Room
You may be saying, "Wait! Isn't faith the worst culprit of all?" Religion has been at the heart of major conflicts throughout human history, right up to the present moment.
Large military battles are the most heart-breaking, but religious disagreements also fuel smaller skirmishes in our communities and families. They may have even shown up around your Thanksgiving table a few days ago.
Also, faith can be used to harm and shame people. We hear a lot these days about toxic faith, and much of it rings true. Religion hurts people with alarming regularity. I'm reading a book on spiritual bullying just now, and find myself nodding a lot.
Yes to all of this, but it isn't the whole story. Positive psychology is more interested in what goes right than what goes wrong.
Faith and Life Satisfaction
I can't begin to summarize the literature on faith and wellness because it is simply too vast. Hundreds of studies now support the notion that people of faith are happier, less likely to be depressed, and make better health choices. Having ample amounts of money helps with life satisfaction, but not as much as having faith.
A massive study of 74,000 participants, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows people who attend religious services regularly live longer than those who don't.
Cause and effect is difficult to determine, but I find it striking that our current unraveling of human civility seems to be happening alongside striking decreases in religious service attendance.
Faith and Prosociality
Do people of faith tend to be nicer toward others than those who have no religious faith? In scientific jargon, we call this religion and prosociality.
Three scholars at Baylor University recently scoured the literature and found that faith probably does promote prosocial behavior, but with some caveats:
People of faith tend to report being nicer than they actually are
People of faith are probably more prosocial than those who have no faith, but the difference isn't very big
People of faith may be nice to folks in their own group, but not necessarily to those outside their group (but see study below!)
We need more research on this (which every scholar says at the end of every scientific article)
In April of this year, a group of scholars throughout the world published a hopeful study showing that people of various faiths become more generous after thinking about their god.
Imagine yourself in this study. First, in Round 1 you're given some coins and then asked to distribute them into two envelopes--one for yourself and one to give away to someone else. Roughly, this is a measure of generosity.
Round 2 looks a lot like Round 1, but this time you're asked to think about God before making a choice. The study included Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews throughout the world, so the way people refer to and think about the divine differed, but thinking about God increased generosity by 11%. Strikingly, people were more generous both toward people of their own ethnicity and faith and people outside their group.
Eleven percent may not seem like much, but stop and think for a moment how the world might be different if we were all just 11% kinder, more generous, more thoughtful and prosocial. What changes might this bring?
I'm challenging myself in this series, and not just my readers. Today my challenge is to think more about God before responding to others, to immerse myself in faith, to remember the kindness and grace God shows me and consider how I might extend kindness toward others.
People can be so harsh, and life circumstances so difficult. But what if each us could remember the kindness shown to us and become 11% more kind to others?
Imagine the possibilities...
Challenge #1: Vengelessness
Challenge #2: The Other Team Matters
Challenge #3: No, I am NOT Omniscient
Challenge #4: Hermeneutic Humility
Challenge #5: Minding Our Social Media Matters
Challenge #6: Meeting Our Inner Narcissist
Challenge #7: Good Grief