Is religion the path to happiness? Some say it might be. Find out how you can incorporate a sense of meaning to your life, whether you believe in a higher power or not.
After my sexual assault a few years ago, I found myself thinking a lot about God. In the process, I've come to realize I'm more spiritual than I am religious.
What do I mean by this? As far as praying to God goes, I prefer looking inside for inner guidance—tapping into my own abundantly powerful inner resources—where some might say God does indeed reside.
Which reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons. Two sock puppets are talking to each other. One sock puppet says to the other, "Sometimes I wonder if there is a hand."
I believe you are your own inner hand. The godly power resides within each of us to create the life we desire, no matter the challenges. I also believe it doesn't matter where your godly guidance comes from, whether it's deep inside you or from high above. What does matter is that you take the time to seek it during times of trouble.
Studies show that people who are actively involved in religion report greater levels of happiness than those who are not religious.
In one study*, 101 undergraduate students between ages 18 and 49 were given surveys. Those scoring high in religious beliefs—attended church regularly, had a strong religious faith, and prayed often—were the ones who scored the highest in happiness.
Personally, I think there are several reasons why the religious students scored higher on the happiness meter, and not all the reasons necessarily have to do with religion. Religious people are simply following the major core practices of happy people. For example, the guaranteed social support that can be found in a church, synagogue or mosque is beneficial and helpful if you're struggling through a trauma or crisis.
Religion also can provide a sense of meaning and purpose. According to psychiatrist Ed Diener, having a belief in something bigger than yourself—a sense of order amid all the chaos—is a vital ingredient to happiness.
You can find this meaning in religious prayer or a spiritual belief system. Or you can develop a personal life philosophy that inspires you to seek lessons and growth. The important thing is to take the time to seek out this meaning and purpose during challenging times.
If God is the secret to happiness, how can He let bad things happen to good people in the first place?
That said, I've got to confess: It was hard for me to consider hiring a higher power during the challenging time following my sexual assault.
I kept thinking, "If there is indeed a God, then where was he/she during my time of need? After all, I am a good person. So, why did this happen to me?
"Is there really a godly force out there logging all our good actions and all our good thoughts, then giving away God coupons with a bonus reward point system to frequent do-gooders to be cashed in later for exciting life upgrade prizes?" I wondered. If so, did this mean if I helped a little old lady or chose not to swear or resisted hurting someone then God would give me extra bonus good life stuff? And what if I did the opposite, and behaved badly? Would there be a cause and effect in my life as well?
And what about the world's infinite suffering? Was there some cause and effect methodology behind the madness? Could there be any appropriate reasoning behind the world's incredible pain, endless violence and heart-wrenching injustice?
My ruminations led me to discover the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who shared many interesting perspectives about God. One of his more provocative proclamations: "God is an underachiever."
Throughout all Leibniz's writings, he, like so many of us, kept questioning how a God who was supposedly good could allow so much evil and suffering in our world.
In the end, Leibniz came to God's defense, theorizing that because God was all-knowing, he or she could evaluate all the possibilities of various worlds. So perhaps God chose the world we're in, as bad as it might seem at times, because it offered up the least possible evil.
In other words, no matter how challenging your life might feel, it could have been a whole lot worse.
Finding meaning from life's challenges
Rabbi Harold Kushner's view on why bad things might happen to good people also comforted me. His overall view is God could have controlled everything about your life, the good and the bad. But then you'd merely be "stepford humans" and there'd be no fun in living at all. And no growth either, for that matter! What else are you here for but to live and learn? Which is why God granted you this fabulous perk called free will, and you have a choice in how you cope with any suffering you are dealt in the process of all your free-will living!
In reading about God, I also discovered how early deity-believers would literally rejoice during their times of suffering because they gratefully recognized how suffering forced them to look upward. To become fully conscious, think about their lives more deeply and appreciate what they had all the more.
Instead of seeking to find the meaning behind the concept of suffering, you should try to make sure your suffering becomes meaningful. Instead of asking God to remove your problems so that your life might be happy, you must purposefully try to learn as much as you can and become happier because of your new insights.
One universal good thing to come from bad things is the gift of empathy. Suffering imparts on all of us an informed sense of empathic understanding which helps us to better connect with one another. Without bad experiences, no one could ever fully relate to each other. And all of us greatly desire to connect.
What helps you get through tough times? Do you believe in a higher power or does something else bring you peace? Tell us!
Karen Salmansohn is a best-selling author known for creating self-help for people who wouldn't be caught dead reading self-help. Get more information on finding a loving happier-ever-after relationship in her book Prince Harming Syndrome.
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Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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