Prayer and Happiness
Prayer and Happiness
If you ask anybody what his/her goal in life is, chances are you’ll hear something like: “Well, I just want to be happy”. It seems that happiness is the ultimate goal for a lot of people. After all, isn’t that why we do the things we do - to be happy? We go to school or work, we try to save some money, we cultivate important relationships, because we believe that those steps will bring us to places in our lives where we will be happy.
Ironically, while we often think of happiness as a goal, researchers are finding out that happiness is actually more of a cause of important things. For example, being happy has been found to lead to a number of positive outcomes, including better physical and mental health. Happy people are indeed blessed, not just because they are happy but because their happiness actually leads to a better life.
But the problem with happiness is that it’s often so elusive. Nobody really seems to know how to get it, although some people talk like they are experts. Many people attach happiness to material possessions, popularity, or success in school, only to find that accomplishing the goal doesn’t completely erase their loneliness or lack of zest.
How does prayer fit in here? Does prayer have any association with happiness? The short answer is yes. But the long answer is that things are more complicated than that.
We pray for many things in life so it would make sense that we would pray directly for happiness (“Please God, let me win the Mega Jackpot Drawing so I can take a Mediterranean cruise and be happy”). But aside from praying for happiness, researchers are now learning that the very act of praying may be associated with happiness. They are using neuroimaging to study patterns of brain activity in people engaged in prayer. Using fMRI technology to look at areas of the brain in prayer, one particularly interesting study with a group of nuns found that certain areas of the brain activated while the nuns were reliving a mystical experience or thinking about intense unification feelings involved an area associated with love and happiness. So, in this study, it appears that reliving a mystical experience or thinking about intense unification feelings, prayer-like activity, produced happiness.
The idea that prayer may produce happiness also gains support from studies using a Prayer Feelings measure, a rating of six emotions experienced by people in prayer (happiness, surprise, disgust, sadness, fear, and anger). One study using this Prayer Feelings measure found that positive emotions were generally stronger in intensity than negative emotions in prayer. Whether we pray for money to get happy or peace to be happy, prayer can lead to happiness, both through the feelings associated with prayer and through the activation of particular areas of the brain.
One more way that prayer can be associated with happiness stems from what spirituality does for us psychologically. One study of persons with psychiatric disabilities found that religious coping, having religious beliefs and practices, seemed to be associated with increased life satisfaction and reduced psychological distress. For these people, religious beliefs and practices are a source of strength and comfort as they cope with their symptoms. Having faith in a divine plan and hope in something greater than oneself can enable a person to become optimistic and deal with a mental illness more effectively.
William James, arguably the greatest American psychologist, long ago described how the spiritual or mystical experiences of the individual can cause happiness:
"We are thus made convincingly aware of the presence of a sphere of life larger and more powerful than our usual consciousness, with which the latter is nevertheless continuous. The impressions and impulses and emotions and excitements which we thence receive help us to live, they found invincible assurance of a world beyond the sense, they melt our hearts and communicate significance and value to everything and make us happy."
(June 16, 1901 William James in a letter to Henry W. Rankin)
Prayer is perspective-setting. Whether one prays for a million dollars or for simple gratitude, prayer involves transcendence. It lifts us out of ourselves and helps us to see the eternal context in which we function. What a great tool we can use to make ourselves happy!