Believing In Life SatisfactionJune 25, 2002
How satisfied are you with the quality of your life? If you answered "very," it's a good bet that spiritual beliefs and practices are important to you. That's the consensus of a growing body of research that links faith and life satisfaction.
At the vanguard of such research is Dr. Michael Frisch, Baylor professor of psychology, who has spent so much time pondering what makes people happy that the subject has become his major area of research.
"For too long, psychology has been preoccupied with what's wrong with people," he says. "I was interested in finding out what's right with people and what contributes to a fulfilling life."
Dr. Frisch likens life satisfaction to a stew with many ingredients. For each of us, a unique combination of factors determines how pleased we are with our lives. To help quantify these factors, he developed a Quality of Life Inventory (QOLI) that measures 17 areas related to life satisfaction.
Since its publication in 1988, the QOLI has become one of the most widely used measures of quality of life in psychiatry, as evidenced by its inclusion in the American Psychiatric Association's 2000 Handbook of Psychiatric Measures. Additionally, of more than 1,000 similar tests, Dr. Frisch's QOLI was the only one selected for inclusion in the standard textbook of psychological assessment, The Use of Psychological Testing for Treatment Planning and Outcome Assessment (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publisher).
Dr. Frisch's research shows that spiritual beliefs and practices are important ingredients in the life satisfaction "stew" for many individuals.
"One of the most important predictors of happiness is having a purpose in life. Spiritual beliefs and practices can give us that purpose," Dr. Frisch says.
Spirituality may contribute to life satisfaction because the belief in something bigger than ourselves makes us less preoccupied with our problems, his studies show. Relying on a higher power can reduce the feelings of helplessness that often accompany life's tragedies and disappointments. Spiritual beliefs also foster optimism and positive self-esteem, traits that make people resilient to life's difficulties. This may explain why those who participate in religious activities have lower rates of depression, anxiety and addictive disorders, Dr. Frisch says.
Religious practices connect people, and individuals with a wide circle of relationships tend to report greater life satisfaction than those with few social contacts, Dr. Frisch says. Religious communities often serve as surrogate families that provide support in times of sickness or crisis. Widows who are active in a faith community, for example, report more effective coping skills and a greater degree of overall happiness than those without such affiliations.
In addition, many faith communities stress the importance of good works and service and encourage their members to share their gifts and talents with others. Dr. Frisch notes that this "theology of religious volunteerism" gives people a higher purpose by changing their focus from self to others.
Participation in spiritual activities may even have a positive effect on health. A number of new studies suggest that those who attend religious services regularly may be physically healthier and rebound more quickly from illness, Dr. Frisch says.