Taylor: Delay the Pearly Gates: Join a church

Do happy, long-lived people join in more social activities and volunteer than grumpy people?

Postpone eternal life as long as possible—join a church!

That slogan sounds like a contradiction—don’t churches extol the glories of eternal life?

In fact, dozens of demographic studies have found that people who attend church regularly tend to live longer than non-attenders. Now psychologist Jonathan Haidt has provided some rationale for this extended longevity.

He cites two factors—volunteerism and altruism.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt writes, “A study that tracked volunteering and well-being over many years, in thousands of people, was able to show a causal effect: When a person increased volunteer work, all measures of happiness and well-being increased afterwards…”

Correspondence doesn’t necessarily prove cause and effect. Volunteering may make people happy. On the other hand, maybe happy people are more likely to volunteer.

But consider the opposite—unhappy people are unlikely to volunteer. If they do, they do it grudgingly. Volunteer work does not make them cheerful.

Volunteering also enhances the social aspect of life. Haidt continues, “In old age, as social networks are thinned by the deaths of friends and family, the social benefits of volunteering are strongest.

“The elderly benefit even more than other adults, particularly when their volunteer work involves direct person-to-person helping, or is done through a religious organization. The benefits of volunteer work for the elderly are so large that they even show up in improved health and longer life.”

Another author, Charles Montgomery, argues in his book Happy City that “Social isolation may be the greatest environmental hazard of city living—worse than noise, pollution, or even crowding.”

Modern apartments and condominiums tend to minimize social interaction. You can live next door to someone, and never meet them. And the social media are anything but social. A Facebook friend can sympathize, but she cannot bring you a casserole when you’re crying.

Andre Picard notes, in the latest United Church Observer, “Loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; having no friends may increase the risk of premature death by about 30 per cent; social isolation can be twice as deadly as obesity, as big a killer as diabetes, and hikes the risk of dementia by 64 per cent.

“More Canadians than ever live alone, and one in four describe themselves as lonely. An estimated one in eight seniors lives a solitary life without friends or family. The rates are even higher for people with disabilities and those with severe mental illness…We have an epidemic of loneliness…”

Volunteering helps to reduce loneliness.

Of course, volunteering doesn’t have to happen through a church. Working through other social service agencies and clubs might offer the same benefits. So might any group activity.

But the altruism factor favours religious communities. “Altruistic activities add depth and virtue to one’s character,” Haidt notes.

The University of Michigan examined two groups—those who received help, and those who gave help. “Those who reported giving help…. went on to live longer,” Haidt concludes. “Whereas the amount of help that people reported receiving showed no relationship to longevity… At least for older people, it really is more blessed to give than to receive.”

There you are. Join a church, feel happier, and live longer.


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