How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion
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How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

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How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of Emotional Success and The Truth About Trust, and coauthor of Out of Character. He frequently writes for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston GlobeHarvard Business Review, and The Atlantic.

Below, David shares 5 key insights from his new book, How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion. Listen to the audio version—read by David himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. Put your -isms aside.

One of the things I’ve found in writing about the intersection of science and religion is that -isms (Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Atheism) often get in the way of people working together. They end up putting us on teams when, in fact, scientists and religious thinkers have the same goal: to improve people’s lives. Put theology aside, and most of our acrimony goes with it, freeing us up to figure out why people who engage in spiritual practices tend to live longer, healthier, happier lives.

It’s a question worthy of our attention, and it doesn’t require adopting any specific belief. Let’s figure out how rituals and practices surrounding birth and death, love and loss, morality and meaning can benefit all of us. We’ve begun to do this with meditation. Research has revealed the many benefits mindfulness has to offer. My question is, what’s the next mindfulness? It’s out there—we just have to be willing to look. To succeed, though, we need, as Adam Grant often says, to set aside our own biases and listen respectfully to what others have to say. If we don’t do that—if we’re not open to what spiritual traditions can teach us—we’ll not only slow the progress of the science of well-being, but also limit our own.

2. Caring = loving.

I once heard the psychologist Alison Gopnik say that we care for our children because we love them, and we love them because we care for them. The basic act of showing care leads us to place even more value on our little ones. The logic is similar to what economists call the sunk-cost fallacy: the more time and effort you put into something—a class, a project, or even a relationship—the harder it is to walk away, even if it makes logical sense to cut your losses.

“Scientists and religious thinkers have the same goal: to improve people’s lives.”

Now, kids aren’t truly sunk costs. But childcare can feel like it at times. Young children need us to do everything for them. And when we’re tired or overworked, that can sometimes feel overwhelming. But if we look at where mother-child bonds are the closest, in terms of time spent together and emotional closeness, we see Japan as a leader. The Japanese even have their own emotion for this. It’s called amae. Think of it as that feeling you get when you’re hard at work and your child tugs on your leg wanting you to pick them up and read to them. That feeling when you put your work aside and place your child in your lap—that’s amae.

When we look at Shinto, the major religion of Japan, we see that it is front-loaded with ritual demonstrations of love and gratitude for a new child. They provide important memories of providing care. It begins when family and friends wrap a sash around a pregnant mom’s belly to cradle her unborn child. After the child is born, there’s a naming ceremony, then a ceremony at a shrine to give thanks, then one to celebrate the child’s first bite of solid food, one for the first birthday, and on and on through the early years of the child’s life. All of these require a good deal of planning and expense by parents, and all are highly memorable. The message of gratitude and value for the child can’t be missed. And it’s those memorable celebrations—those clear signs of care—that remind us just how important and worthy of love those children are.

Now, you don’t have to follow Shinto to gain these benefits. You can still create rituals to show care for your child—rituals that will strengthen your bonds. Set aside time to read or play with them regularly, or invent occasions to celebrate them. In my family, we celebrate half-birthdays to double the yearly fun. The key is to make it a ritual that must happen, not one that can fall by the wayside if you’re busy. If you do this, you’ll find that your parental bonds will strengthen.

3. Gratitude is a fount of virtue.

Almost all religions offer prayers of gratitude. And while we often think of gratitude as an emotion focused on the past, it’s really focused on the future. It pushes us to act in ways that ensure we’ll have more to be grateful for down the line. In my lab, we’ve been studying gratitude for years, and we’ve found it really is a fount of virtue. If you cultivate it, other good qualities will flow forth.

“Find time every day to acknowledge the kind or generous acts, even small ones, you’ve received.”

Let’s take honesty, for example. We’ve run studies showing that gratitude makes people cheat less. In one, we had people focus on something they were grateful for right before we asked them to flip a coin on a website; they got a lot more money for heads than for tails. What they didn’t know is that we had rigged the coin to always come up tails. But since people were doing the experiment on computers in their own homes, we simply asked them to tell us what they got, and we’d pay them accordingly. As it turned out, about 50% of people lied on average. But that dropped to 27% if they were feeling grateful. In similar ways, we’ve found that gratitude makes people more helpful, more generous, and more patient. So when Christians say grace before their evening meals, or when Jews say the Modeh Ani prayer on awakening—a prayer to give thanks for being on Earth another day—the gratitude they’re cultivating is a booster for virtue. In fact, we’ve found that higher daily levels of gratitude predict lower impulsivity in general. So while it’s true that most religions tell people to be honest, generous, and the like, they’re also giving people the tools to help make it happen—tools that nudge our emotions, and thus our decisions, below our conscious radar. Here again, you don’t have to be a believer to practice gratitude. Just find time every day to acknowledge the kind or generous acts, even small ones, you’ve received.

4. Death is lurking.

“Who will live and who will die? Who will die at their predestined time and who before? Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague?” These words are from the Unetanneh Tokef, a prayer that Jews the world over recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s a reminder that life is uncertain. Its length is a gift, not a guarantee. And as the events of the last two years have made painfully clear, life, for any of us, can end sooner than we hoped or expected. But Judaism isn’t alone in having rituals that remind people of death.

For many Christians, Ash Wednesday serves a similar purpose. As priests or ministers mark people’s foreheads with literal ash, they say: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” For many Buddhists, meditations on death are a basic practice. On a psychological level, highlighting the possibility of death, while not a pleasant thought, serves a positive purpose.

“When Americans want to be happier, they tend to buy something or develop a new skill. But this strategy tends not to work well.”

Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen has long argued that people’s perception of the time until their likely death guides their motivations. When we perceive time to be open-ended—when death seems almost infinitely far away—we focus on individual pursuits. We want to enhance our careers, our skills, our wealth, and our status. But when time feels constrained—when the milepost marking the end of our journey can be glimpsed—our motivations change. We value the people and friendships that make us happiest. We gravitate toward the activities that we find to be most meaningful.

Carstensen and her colleagues usually find this pattern when they compare the mindsets of older people to younger ones. Those in their 60’s and 70’s—ages when the time-horizons to death seem smaller—tend to be more focused on finding connection and meaning compared to their younger counterparts. They also tend to be happier. But this difference isn’t really a function of age. The move toward or away from deeper connection and well-being can happen at any age if time-horizons suddenly shift in unexpected ways. For example, in the face of pandemics like SARS or now COVID, data show that the age difference disappears. Likewise, when Carstensen asked seniors what they’d do if they suddenly were given a medicine that added decades to their lives, their preferences looked like those of young adults.

What’s most important to realize, though, is that pursuing happiness by valuing an interconnected, as opposed to an atomistic, approach to life brings more happiness at any age. Research shows that when Americans want to be happier, they tend to buy something or develop a new skill. But this strategy tends not to work well. Greater joy comes from activities that are social—strengthening bonds with friends and family, or working to benefit the community.

The good news is that the benefits coming from mortality reminders are available to all of us. Even simple reminders can help, ones that can be separated from any specific theology. You don’t have to be a person of faith to contemplate your death. Remember, Carstensen’s work showed that simply thinking about living for longer or shorter periods changes what people value. What’s more, you don’t have to wait for a specific day or season to do it. Many religious thinkers, like the medieval scholar Thomas à Kempis, have urged people to contemplate death every day, and in doing so, to realize that they should live today as if they wouldn’t see tomorrow.

“By taking the time to meditate for short periods each day, you’ll not only feel less stressed; you’ll also become a better, kinder person.”

5. Meditation isn’t just about you.

We all value kindness, but showing it doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes we lose our cool or patience and lash out. But our failure to be kind also shows up in less obvious ways. We walk by homeless people on the street without giving them a second thought. We don’t give our seat on the subway to the pregnant mom with a toddler in tow. We don’t stop to ask a co-worker how they’re doing when they’re obviously stressed. It’s not that anyone wants to be callous—it’s just that we’re often running on autopilot, too caught up in our own desires and concerns to notice that the person next to us is carrying some type of pain inside. And most troubling of all, we haven’t hit bottom yet. Surveys show that concern for others has been on a steady decline over the past 30 years.

Buddhists recognized the struggle long ago. Despite our best intentions, practicing kindness can sometimes be really hard. It usually requires a sacrifice: giving someone time, money, companionship, or a shoulder to cry on. And that means it can feel like work, especially when it’s not focused on a friend or loved one. For kindness to truly grow, there needs to be a better way—a way to make it automatic. That’s why Buddhists created what may be the world’s first kindness technology: meditation.

Most people tend to think of meditation as a way to help themselves—to reduce stress, enhance memory, or even improve creativity or standardized test scores. But for the Buddha and other meditation teachers, it had one purpose: to inspire its practitioners to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings.

As it turns out, it does indeed do that. My lab has found that after only eight weeks of study with a Buddhist lama, 50 percent of those randomly assigned to meditate daily spontaneously helped a stranger in pain. Only 16 percent of those who didn’t meditate did the same. And compassion wasn’t limited to strangers—in another study, we found that after three weeks of meditation, most people refrained from seeking revenge on someone who insulted them, unlike most of those who did not meditate.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to use this technology for kindness. You don’t even have to leave your house to go to a meditation class—we’ve replicated these findings using the Headspace app. By taking the time to meditate for short periods each day, you’ll not only feel less stressed; you’ll also become a better, kinder person.

To listen to the audio version read by David DeSteno, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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