5 religion happiness hacks for the non-religious

I’ve finally caved and written a listicle. It is a long-form listicle, but a listicle all the same. Yes, I still want to maintain the integrity of the blog as a forum for open intellectual discussion. But I found as I was writing that naturally, this particular post emerged as a series of ideas related to a common theme. Realising what I had done with a rapidly descending dread, I accepted my fate and reluctantly numbered each point. I hope you will have an open mind toward a controversial topic in a controversial format: religion.

Why is this relevant now?

A recent poll found approximately 20% of Americans defined themselves as ‘Spiritual but not religious’. Back in 2013, research by UCL found a similar percentage of the UK population fitted this category. Although spirituality is a personal choice, secular society should look to religion to understand the needs of a population. In doing so, we can identify how the state and local communities can better serve the functions that religion previously filled.

A summary of the historic role of organised religion

There are many aspects of organised religion which fundamentally are no longer needed in modern society. With technological advances came a control over the natural world. Thus, humanity was better able to control its fate. Prayers are therefore rarely needed to fill this void. For example, to pray for good weather almost seems self-indulgent – as if topping up a suntan is the most pressing of concerns…

Yet in centuries past, the weather would affect….

our ability to leave the house

to visit loved ones

to travel any distance

the harvest and resulting food supply, famine

even the phases of the moon would impact travel plans…

Daily activities for basic survival were much more heavily dependent on the changing weather. So we lived in alignment with the seasons. Electricity now provides us with a 24-hour light source and climate controlled buildings, whilst a globalised food chain provides an abundance of food. There is no longer a need to overcome a lack of power with faith.

It is my view that we live in a void between a post-religious, pre-secular society. As our day to day lives are no longer governed ‘by the Gods’ or ‘fate’, we no longer turn to religion in vast numbers. Yet, there are many aspects to organised religion that the state does not (yet) fulfill.

These are institutionalised religious practices that are disconnected from spirituality, but which could benefit wider societal health and happiness. As individuals, it is worth considering these key elements of religion that have been a foundation to human life for centuries. Doing so may also help inspire us to live happier lives, and better fulfill the 5 pillars of happiness I outline in my happiness framework. So here are my top 5 religion happiness hacks for the non-religious….

1. Saying Grace: Conscious Eating

The mindfulness trend has picked up pace over the past several years, but as Michael Pollen points out, it is nothing new! It has existed in religious thinking around the globe for centuries. Mindful eating not only means taking the time to sit down to eat and savour the flavours and textures of your food. It means considering the origin of the food on your plate and cultivating gratitude.

Mindfulness in religious practice

In the Catholic religion, typically the following prayer is said before eating:

Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen. (Preceded and followed by the Sign of the Cross.)

Describing food as “Thy gifts” cultivates gratitude, whilst “Thy bounty” acknowledges that the food has not magically appeared out of thin air as a finished product in a plastic wrapper on a supermarket shelf. Rather, it is grown, through careful cultivation of Earth’s resources.

In Islam similarly, the “Du’a” is a personal prayer said silently or quietly, whether eating alone or in a group, to draw the mind and focus attention on the act of eating. There are many variations of this prayer, depending on the circumstance used, but most include a statement of gratitude for the food ‘provided’ by Allah.

Equally, many religions have developed rituals surrounding slaughter; mindful of the sacrifice. Reflection, gratitude and mindfulness around food are themes which run across religions and have been long-established.

Conscious or mindful eating then is not new. For many centuries, through the medium of religion, people have acknowledged and given thanks for their food.

Benefits of mindful eating

Conscious or mindful eating is popular to help lose weight or manage binge eating, but equally is a way to reduce stress, slow the pace of life and calm the parasympathetic nervous system, which goes into overdrive under stressful conditions. It is often recommended for sufferers of anxiety, and the NHS now offers guidance on how mindfulness, including mindful eating, can help to improve mental wellbeing.

In secular society, it is positive to see the NHS offer guidance on mindfulness, but more could be done to encourage the adoption of mindful eating practices.

Secular adoption of mindful eating

Unlike the other 4 points on this listicle, mindful eating has no institutional grounding. There isn’t a natural physical home like a church building, or a natural institution which could take the lead on raising awareness of food origins. There are measures that governments can take; however, I believe these must be part of wider legislation aiming to bring about a shift in corporate culture.

At a societal level, we must move away from a high-pressure, 9-5 ‘bums on seats’ corporate mentality. Instead, let’s empower the workforce to achieve business goals on their own terms. This means allowing employees to work flexible hours, take breaks as and when they choose and encouraging employees to take long lunch breaks – by which I mean, taking a full hour, instead of grabbing a sandwich and eating it at your desk.

At an individual level, adopting mindful eating encourages us to spend time away from our phones and TVs. The exception to this is those who live alone: for many people, it isn’t possible to have dinner each night with family and friends. The mindful eating movement may seem alienating and even act as a reminder of loneliness. If eating alone, it is still possible to take the time out to prepare fresh food, and eat at a table, without a screen. Even if this means, for example, reading a magazine, or listening to a podcast.

2. Confession: The institutionalisation of therapy

To continue with Pollan’s analogy, in the Catholic religion, the priest historically served as a ‘therapist’ for his congregation. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, confession is described as follows:

Confession, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the acknowledgment of sinfulness in public or private, regarded as necessary to obtain divine forgiveness. The need for confession is frequently stressed in the Bible. The mission of the Old Testament prophets was to awaken in the people a sense of sinfulness and an acknowledgment of their guilt, both personal and collective.

Confession provided an opportunity to reflect on past events, behaviour and determine whether actions taken were aligned with your values. Moreover, it was an opportunity to better understand yourself, forgive yourself, identify behavioural patterns and ultimately to heal, to move forward. Unlike therapy, however, in confession the priest would judge behaviour as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ against the values in the bible, and provide advice.

Shame vs Guilt

In a recent Friday Favourites post, I discussed the importance of having faith, defined as a fundamental baseline optimism. This is not naivety or a detachment from reality, but a belief that you will be OK in the end. Lack of control is an inevitable part of life, and how we respond to that powerlessness determines the extent of our suffering. In confession, there is an ‘institutionalised’ path forward through difficult times, as well as a route to forgiveness. This removes many limiting beliefs and places emphasis on guilt for our actions, rather than shame for who we are.

In her viral Ted Talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown argues:

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.”

It results in higher levels of depression, addiction, violence, bullying, and suicide. In confession, then, the emphasis is on forgiveness for actions, rather than shaming your soul. Now, did all priests take that attitude? Almost certainly not. I have no doubt that over the centuries there will have been many priests who cultivated shame during confession. Many will have told their congregation that the soul is flawed and they will burn in hell for their actions. However, as an institution, confession, like therapy, provided a gateway to personal growth.

3. Prayer: The institutionalisation of self-reflection

Prayer serves a valuable purpose to the individual in creating a practice which serves many purposes. This includes stillness, reflection, gratitude, and meditation. The same outcomes can be achieved through a variety of secular practices. But how powerful that one action can offer so many benefits! Yet belief in the existence of God is pretty much a given to practice prayer. A non-believer is simply not going to sit down and pray for the associated benefits alone. So how can we get the same benefits through secular practice?

The below image outlines the ways in which, at an individual level, we can include and develop these powerful, positive elements of prayer. Equally, for those reading who are religious, the secular practices may serve to augment your prayer, and see prayer differently in your life.

4. Church services: The institutionalisation of community connection

In The Little Book of Lykke, Meik Wiking argues that stronger community connection results in improved happiness. It will come as no surprise that loneliness is bad for happiness. However, what was surprising to me is that the evidence shows the more often people meet, the happier they are. (See p.65 re the European Social Survey).

As an introvert, I often find social interactions exhausting and overwhelming. But the reality is that, as Aristotle pointed out: “Man is by nature a social animal”. Social connection is a human characteristic, not a personality trait.

The holy grail: connection

What’s more, there is evidence to suggest that social connection is the overriding factor causing long life. ‘Blue zones’ are pockets of communities in the world where life expectancy is exceedingly high compared to the rest of the world. Research into these zones is intensive. We all want to know the miracle cure, the secret to long life.

In the Ted Talk ‘The secret to living longer may be your social life’, Susan Pinker argues that this great mystery may have nothing to do with low-carb, low-sugar, low-fat diets, but in fact be as straightforward as human connection.

Social isolation is the public health risk of our time – Susan Pinker

(Side note: Matthew Walker made the exact same statement about sleep in his book Why We Sleep. I’d lean towards Matthew Walker on this debate as quite simply we can’t be sociable if we’re exhausted. Nevertheless I hope the bold statement is suitably alarming to underscore its importance in our lives)

The historic role of the church

The local church has historically been the central pillar to the local community. It would have no doubt been one of the largest buildings, the only place suitable for hosting big indoor events. Everyone in the community would attend their church once a week. This allowed people to meet their neighbours, get to know those who worked for local services such as the police or, in later centuries, local leaders.

The priest was equally a leader of the community and represented a limited, political voice for his congregation. The church building, therefore, put individuals at close physical proximity to one another, to network and build connections. It also served as a metaphorical entry-point for newcomers to the community. Travelers or those who had moved from another village would join the congregation, thus reducing the fear of outsiders. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that the social coherence would result in a natural fear of outsiders. However, it would nevertheless improve the social bond of those ‘in’ the group.

Political alternatives

In our secular society, MPs (UK) or senators (US) have quite natural took up many of the responsibilities previously fulfilled by the local priest. This includes listening to the local community and understanding their concerns. However, politicians vary dramatically in their willingness to spend time with the community. Their territorial remit is also much wider (counties and regions) than the average church (villages). There is no central meeting point for the community, and even where there are town halls, they are often old and run-down.

Meeting points tend to be more often divided by class. Those who can afford to join a country club or fancy gym may get to know one another. Whereas for those living on limited income, the only points of connection may be areas such as the local post office or village park.

5. Religious texts: Agreed boundaries of the community + philosophy

Historically, religious texts have provided the basis on which to societies have collectively established what is considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Justice systems around the world evolved from the behavioural standards outlined in religious texts. Notably in the western sphere, the church and state separated in the centuries proceeding the ‘enlightenment’ era. Justice systems were then modified through debate and reasoned analysis.

Yet, the fundamental principles of right and wrong have not changed in any meaningful way. All are based on the principle of ‘do no harm’, and the punishments are determined based on the severity of the harm. But at a deeper level, the best way to live our lives is not regularly debated in public forums.

The church enables individuals to look at a set text and infer an interpretation as it applies to one’s own life. It confronts directly one’s own mortality and encourages the creation of meaning from a shared set of values. Discussion and debate about the meaning of different verses are commonplace in church environments. The church, in theory, encourages discussion within a framework of kindness, understanding, compassion and shared values.

So how can this same discussion and debate be addressed in daily life? What institutions exist as public forums for debate?

Political vs individual responsibility

For the big issues, politics is a wide-reaching public forum, but it does not enable citizens who do not hold public office to engage with debates about their own lives in a detailed, meaningful way. The organisation ‘The School of Life’ founded by Alain de Botton is the only institution of which I am aware. It facilitates deeper debates and discussion based on a common shared framework. Unlike the church, The School of Life is not universally accessible. As a private institution, access requires some financial outlay.

At an individual level, many institutions offer services which solve specific problems that may be connected to existential awareness. For example, depression may be caused by a lack of meaning or purpose, and be treated by the state health service. Services such as talking therapies may address existential debates which an individual is struggling to come to terms with to make progress toward a happier life. However, these debates are not explored away from the therapist’s couch at a communal or societal level.

How do we fill the void?

I will leave you with this: what role should the state play in facilitating engagement at an individual level with how to live your life?

Is there a need for community town halls to facilitate debate, community connection, and philosophy?

Is it possible for the state to engage citizens in a meaningful discussion at any level without risking descent into an Orwellian big-brother society?