Jan. 23, 2005 — -- Is there a secret weapon against depression? Research suggests it might be religion. Studies show that people who practice some sort of religion are happier and less stressed out than those who don't.
Those findings come as no surprise to Dr. Harold Koenig, a psychologist and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University, who says there are a number of factors that contribute to religious people being happier.
"Generally, religious people have a positive view of the world," said Koenig. "They believe they are here for a reason. They see a purpose and a meaning in their life and have hope."
Studies show that under severely stressful conditions, religious people also cope better.
"They feel that God is with them and gives them strength," said Koenig.
It is not clear if there is a difference in happiness between those who practice organized religion and those who consider themselves spiritual, said Koenig. In part, that's because it is more difficult to define spirituality.
However, Koenig added, practicing within an organized religion seems to offer people important group and community support. While an activity like volunteering can provide much of the same satisfaction as attending church, many people need external motivation.
"If you give of yourself and love others and have a positive outlook, you can achieve the same thing," said Koenig. "The only thing is most people can't do that. Most people need some kind of faith system and group support which a church provides."
Koenig says it seems to make little difference what religion people practice -- whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim -- but rather how devoutly they practice it.
While surveys show that about 80 percent of Americans consider themselves religious, only about 40 percent of Americans reported regularly attending church -- about the same percentage as in 1939, said Koenig. And younger generations are consistently less religious than their parents.
But Koenig said there is some research suggesting that humans actually are biologically wired to be religious or spiritual. In fact, this week's Time magazine cover story, "The God Gene," says many scientists believe our DNA compels us to seek a higher power.
"Religious faith may help people live longer," said Koenig. "Because it affects our health, it may be that it's genetically programmed."