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Prayer and Altruistic Desire as Predictors of Happiness

Dr. Michael Babula, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Khalifa University, presented his work on prayer and altruistic desire as predictors of happiness in a virtual seminar for the International Psychological Associations Conference and Trends (InPact) 2020 on 25 April. In a comparative study of four countries, Dr. Babula investigated the positive mental health benefits of prayer versus using religion for altruistic purposes.

“With the significant rise of psychological disorders worldwide, psychologists are searching for a toolkit that would help create psychological immunity to mental illness,” explained Dr. Babula. “My research suggests that societies which value collectivism, such as Turkey and India, glean mental health benefits in that prayer significantly predicts happiness.”

“People throughout history have turned to religious activities in seeking happiness. Two emerging themes in the literature is that prayer and altruism may predict happiness.”

One prior study reported that people who were ‘other-focused’ as opposed to ‘self-focused’ during meditation had lower depressive symptoms, maladaptive guilt, anxiety, and empathetic distress. Another found that loving-kindness meditation—a technique to show feelings of warmth and caring for the self and others—produced greater positive emotions which predicted greater life satisfaction and lower depressive symptoms.

Dr. Babula’s work investigated whether prayer or the desire for altruistic action would predict greater levels of happiness. He selected four countries to compare: the United States, Thailand, India, and Turkey. These countries were selected in an attempt to explore possible differences based on representations of the world’s major religions.

“Although the USA has separation of church and state, the USA sample contains participants from across the religious spectrum,” explained Dr. Babula. “The other countries under investigation have religious majorities: Buddhism in Thailand, Hinduism in India, and Islam in Turkey.”

A comparative analysis of data from wave six of the World Values Survey—a global network of social scientists studying changing values and their impact on social and political life—was used to evaluate the hypothesis. Participants in the analysis were asked how often they prayed, whether they would say they were happy, and whether they thought the basic meaning of religion was to follow religious norms or to do good to other people.

The data from the surveys conducted found that prayer significantly predicts greater happiness in India and Turkey, and the desire to use religion to do good for others also significantly predicted happiness for respondents in India. The use of religion to do good for others did not significantly predict happiness for the other countries under investigation.

One assumption is that the sense of collectivism and importance shown towards others in India and Turkey effects levels of happiness.

“In other words, people in collectivist cultures who value strong social bonds are more inclined to pray for others such as their family or members of the community rather than for the self, increasing wellbeing and positive emotions,” explained Dr. Babula.

Collectivism provides some insight as to why prayer in India and Turkey predicted happiness compared with the USA, which values individualism. However, Thailand is a collectivist culture where the majority of the population follows Buddhism, but in Thailand, prayer did not significantly predict happiness. Researchers have previously noticed that while more Thai youth pray, there has been a shift away from the belief in ‘the law of Karma that influences the consequences of one’s deeds.’ While collectivism strengthens in India, its untethering in Thailand might be one reason why prayer is not a predictor of happiness, although more data is required.

“It appears that attitudes to use religion to do good for other people was not a predictor of happiness, except for in India, but the size effect was rather weak for that country,” said Dr. Babula. “Of course, I am undertaking follow-up research to this study by examining actual altruistic action as part of a larger study. I strongly suspect that while attitudes do not always reflect behaviour, those engaged in altruistic activities are likely to obtain mental health benefits.”

“I have been studying altruism and pro-social behaviour for much of my career. Currently, I’m undertaking a funded research project to investigate the relationship between altruism, resiliency, and happiness. These are critically important topics, especially during the current Covid-19 crisis, where it will be a top priority for social scientists worldwide to try to help people avoid dips in subjective wellbeing.”

Dr. Babula’s research will also become a chapter in the current volume of Psychological Applications and Trends, to be published later this year.

Jade Sterling
News and Features Writer
28 April 2020