The Science of Worship: Why Are Religious People Healthier and Happier?
Rabbi Darren Levine explains how the psychology of happiness intersects with religious practice.
Darren Levine is the founding rabbi of Tamid and first set the vision for the synagogue in 2011. He cares deeply about building community, moral education, and creative Jewish expression. He holds Rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has a Doctorate in Pastoral Psychology from the Post Graduate Center for Mental Health.
Levine's His academic and pastoral interests rest at the intersection of psychology and religion and moral education. He has served the Jewish Community Project in Lower Manhattan and Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. He’s done international relief work in Israel and Africa, served a High Holiday pulpit in South Africa, worked for over 10 years as Jewish Camps for the Reform Movement and served as a Chaplain in the US Army.
Darren Levine: Ideas of the science of religion are complicated. God is difficult to bring into the laboratory, and it is very hard to quantify the sacred, but science is beginning to ask questions about the results or the consequences of participating in religious life. Questions like: does participating in a religious community, does having faith in God, does engaging in a process of building a relationship with the divine, do those questions add positivity to people’s lives?
And the research is conclusive, and the research shows that yes, a person who participates in a faith community, who has a relationship with God, and who is on a quest for purpose, that their lives are better and that they do scale higher in the tests of well-being and happiness.
Does that mean it is because as they engage in a process of discovering their faith and deepening their relationship with the God that it is reciprocated on high? I don’t know; that it is very hard to quantify. But what we do know is that people who participate actively in faith community, they have a higher standard of health and that might be because within religious communities, in the best-case scenario, the teachings and the wisdom and the practices are about things like family, personal responsibility, making a positive impact in the world, helping others, deepening relationships; and all of those practices do add a positive value to a person’s life. And so the reactions or the consequences for participating in a faith community do add positive value and well-being and life satisfaction to people’s lives.
Positive psychology got its start from the awareness that the field was focused too much on people’s weaknesses and not their strengths, and so Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson worked to shift the way psychology is practiced, rather than think of someone and their problems we think of someone and their strengths, and we try to develop of those strengths, try to see the best in people. Everybody has signature strengths, and we want to focus and help them develop those and in developing those it helps to shore-up some of their weaknesses.
In a communal setting, expanding on the inventory, we try to apply the same characteristics that are articulated for individuals but we try to put them into practice in a communal setting. And in a community setting is where Judaism lends itself beautifully to applying the inventory of strengths and characteristics.
So the intersection of where positive psychology and the science of happiness intersect with positive religion and positive Judaism really live at the intersection of PERMA. PERMA is an acronym, which stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. So let’s take each of these five domains and see them in the context of religious practice. So we’ll start with P, positive emotion.
In a best-case scenario you think about a sanctuary or an amphitheater setting where faith communities gather, and there are messages of hope, there are soothing melodies, there’s good music, there’s fellowship, and all of those combined together are designed to raise the positive emotion in someone’s life.
And I can tell you that when I travel I go to different churches, synagogues, mosques—over the summer I was in Iceland and I went to a Episcopal church in Reykjavík where the entire ceremony was spoken in Icelandic and I didn’t understand a word, but over the course of an hour and a half I felt my energy level shift and I walked out of that chapel feeling more positive, and it has to do with the environment. So positive emotions are raised by participating in faith community.
Next, engagement. Well the best religions are about helping people to engage in the world and engagement happens in engaging in relationships, engaging in study, engaging in work, engaging in the process hopefully of making our world a better place. Those tend to be key themes in religious life, and engagement has been shown to add positive value to a person’s life.
Next, relationships. Well, relationships are at the heart of most faith communities. It is about bringing people together. It is about caring for people. It is about having relationships with fellow congregants, clergy, educators and relationship with text and relationship with God. Those are all elements of relationships that add value to a person’s life when they’re expressed in authentic ways.
Then we have meaning. So many people are in search of meaning in the 21st century and wisdom and literature that comes from the great religions are all designed to help people discover the meaning and the purpose in their lives.
And finally, accomplishment. Accomplishment is one of the core teachings that come out of good religious practices. The accomplishment of making the world a better place, now that is a core teaching in Judaism—the idea of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world and making it a better place, and having that as a goal to accomplish both for individuals and as a collective religious community—all that combined together in PERMA seems to be the perfect application of this theory of positive psychology. And religious settings, I believe, are that perfect application, that perfect place to see and to live the theory of PERMA and positive psychology.
Now there’s more than just PERMA in positive Judaism and positive religion, there’s also a studied set of characteristics and strengths that come directly from the work of Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, who in the 1990s developed an inventory of strengths. There have been some changes to this inventory, but in a nutshell it has codified 24 different personality strengths like gratitude, resilience, hope, optimism, bravery, spirituality, goodness, kindness, and others. And the idea is that each person has signature strengths, but understood in the context of the larger inventory people can see where they fit into the scale and can attempt to develop other areas of strengths to help improve the quality of their lives. So in the practice of positive Judaism we take that inventory very seriously, and then we think about religious practice—we draw on those strengths in our teachings and the way in which we shape experiences for people’s religious engagement.
Science and religion have a complicated history. Scientists cannot quantify God—God is pretty difficult to bring into the laboratory, quips Rabbi Darren Levine—but what they can study and measure is the effect of faith on people's well-being and life satisfaction. When religious wisdom is taught and enacted well, it focuses on ideals like deepening relationships with family and friends, personal responsibility, and making a positive impact in the world. Levine is a proponent of positive Judaism, which merges key characteristics of positive psychology with practices of reformed Judaism. The field of psychology is often mired in humanity's flaws, but positive psychology is a movement that aims to study people's strengths rather than their weaknesses. The same shift can be true for religion, and nurtured by the power of community. Rabbi Levine sums it up in five letters: PERMA, which stand for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Together, those five pillars can foster greater happiness and health.
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Maybe you should enjoy this article with a cup of coffee or tea.<p> The <a href="https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001252?T=AU" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> involved 4,923 type 2 diabetics living in Japan. The average participant was 66 years old. All of the participants were taken from the rolls of the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry, a study geared at learning about the effects of new treatments and lifestyle changes on the health of diabetics. <br> <br> The participants filled out questionnaires concerning their health, diet, habits, and other factors. Among the questions were two focused on determining how much green tea or coffee, if any, the participants consumed over the course of a week. The health of the participants was recorded for five years. During this time, 309 of the test subjects died from a variety of causes. <br> <br> Subjects who drank more than one cup of tea or coffee per day demonstrated lower odds of dying than those who had none. Those who consumed the most tea and coffee, more than four and two cups a day, respectively, enjoyed the most significant reductions in their risk of death. This level of consumption was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201020190129.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p><p>Most interestingly, the effects of drinking tea and coffee appear to combine to reduce risk even further. Those who reported drinking two or three cups of tea a day and two or more cups of coffee were 51 percent less likely to die during the study, while those who drank a whopping four or more cups of tea and two or more cups of coffee had a 63 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-coffee-and-green-tea-might-reduce-death-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p>
So, should I start swimming in a vat of coffee and green tea?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LY0E-JQxeoY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Not quite. </p><p> The primary takeaway from this study is that Japanese adults with type 2 diabetes who drink a lot of green tea and/or coffee die less often than similar people who do not. If this effect is caused by something in the drink, lifestyle choices people who drink that much tea all make, or something else remains unknown. The finding must be considered an association at this point. <br> <br> The eye-popping reductions in mortality rates are compared to the risk of death of others in the study. The people who died reported drinking less tea and coffee than those who lived. Unless you have several demographic and conditional similarities to the subjects of this study, you probably won't suddenly be at a two-thirds lower risk of death than your peers because you drink green tea. </p><p> Like all studies that depend on self-reporting, it is also possible that people misstated how much they consumed any one item. The study also did not look into other factors like socioeconomic status or education level, also known to impact death rates and potentially linked to coffee and tea consumption. </p><p> However, it is yet another study in the pile that suggests that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coffee</a> and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">green tea</a> are good for you. That much is increasingly <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreed</a><a href="https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/health-benefits-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> upon</a>. This study also suggests the benefits are additive, which is a new development.</p><p><br> So, while it isn't time to start the IV drip of green tea, a cup or two probably won't <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20201022/coffee-green-tea-might-extend-life-for-folks-with-type-2-diabetes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hurt</a>. </p>
But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.
A study finds 1.8 billion trees and shrubs in the Sahara desert.
- AI analysis of satellite images sees trees and shrubs where human eyes can't.
- At the western edge of the Sahara is more significant vegetation than previously suspected.
- Machine learning trained to recognize trees completed the detailed study in hours.
Why this matters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTkyODg5NX0.O3S2DRTyAxh-JZqxGKj9KkC6ndZAloEh4hKhpcyeFDQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="3770d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c27b79d4c0600fb6ebb82e650cabec0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Area in which trees were located
Credit: University of Copenhagen<p>As important as trees are in fighting climate change, scientists need to know what trees there are, and where, and the study's finding represents a significant addition to the global tree inventory.</p><p>The vegetation Brandt and his colleagues have identified is in the Western Sahara, a region of about 1.3 million square kilometers that includes the desert, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel" target="_blank">the Sahel</a>, and the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/subhumid-zones" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sub-humid zones</a> of West Africa.</p><p>These trees and shrubs have been left out of previous tabulations of carbon-processing worldwide forests. Says Brandt, "Trees outside of forested areas are usually not included in climate models, and we know very little about their carbon stocks. They are basically a white spot on maps and an unknown component in the global carbon cycle."</p><p>In addition to being valuable climate-change information, the research can help facilitate strategic development of the region in which the vegetation grows due to a greater understanding of local ecosystems.</p>
Trained for trees<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2MDQ3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTk5NTI3NH0.fR-n1I2DHBIRPLvXv4g0PVM8ciZwSLWorBUUw2wc-Vk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e02c0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="79955b13661dca8b6e19007935129af1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Martin Brandt/University of Copenhagen<p>There's been an assumption that there's hardly enough vegetation outside of forested areas to be worth counting in areas such as this one. As a result the study represents the first time a significant number of trees — likely in the hundreds of millions when shrubs are subtracted from the overall figure — have been catalogued in the drylands region.</p><p>Members of the university's Department of Computer Science trained a machine-learning module to recognize trees by feeding it thousands of pictures of them. This training left the AI be capable of spotting trees in the tiny details of satellite images supplied by NASA. The task took the AI just hours — it would take a human years to perform an equivalent analysis.</p><p>"This technology has enormous potential when it comes to documenting changes on a global scale and ultimately, in contributing towards global climate goals," says co-author Christian Igel. "It is a motivation for us to develop this type of beneficial artificial intelligence."</p><p>"Indeed," says Brandt says, "I think it marks the beginning of a new scientific era."</p>
Looking ahead and beyond<p>The researchers hope to further refine their AI to provide a more detailed accounting of the trees it identifies in satellite photos.</p><p>The study's senior author, Rasmus Fensholt, says, "we are also interested in using satellites to determine tree species, as tree types are significant in relation to their value to local populations who use wood resources as part of their livelihoods. Trees and their fruit are consumed by both livestock and humans, and when preserved in the fields, trees have a positive effect on crop yields because they improve the balance of water and nutrients."</p><p>Ahead is an expansion of the team's tree hunt to a larger area of Africa, with the long-term goal being the creation of a more comprehensive and accurate global database of trees that grow beyond the boundaries of forests.</p>
Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.
- During the 1930s, thousands of Americans sympathized with the Nazis, holding huge rallies.
- The rallies were organized by the American German Bund, which wanted to spread Nazi ideology.
- Nazi supporters also organized summer camps for kids to teach them their values.
A Bund parade in New York, October 30, 1939.
Credit: Library of Congress
Credit: Herald Tribune
Postcards from Camp Siegfried