Thinking about how to be healthy and happy

December 1, 2010

A few days ago, a second-year student at Stanford Medical School came to my home to ask me some questions.  During our time together, he gave me a research paper he had written that was truly amazing.  He said that dozens of medical studies have now established as a solid medical fact that if a certain behavior is practiced regularly, it will add seven years to one’s life (for those who begin the practice in their twenties) and that this practice is one of the most important health behaviors known to medical science.

He gave me three guesses regarding the behavior in view.  Refraining from smoking was my first guess.  No, he said, this behavior is far more important whether or not one smokes even a pack a day!  My second and third guesses were greeted with the same response:  not being overweight and exercising.  What is this behavior that is so essential to health?  Weekly church attendance.  In fact, the student claimed that if a doctor does not recommend weekly church attendance to patients, the doctor is not practicing medicine as it should be practiced!  He went on to claim that while being a devoted religious believer brings along with it a number of health-related behaviors (e.g., refraining from smoking, not being addicted to drugs or excessive alcohol use), these items were taken into account so that the result is that the simple act of attending church on a weekly basis is, on and of itself, irrespective of other health benefits that accompany such behavior, is a major indicator of health and longevity.

Now one obvious conclusion is that we should all attend church weekly (and not weakly!).  But I want to step back from these studies and make a broader point. We all quite appropriately engage in “if-then” reasoning:  If the moon were in such and such a place, then the tide would be thus and so.  But the tide isn’t thus and so, so the moon must not be in that place.  If oil prices go up, then ….  You get the idea.  Now if we discover that facts are as our theoretical “if” says they should be, then the discovery provides confirming evidence of that theoretical “if.”

Recently, I read Depression for Dummies by Laura Smith and Charles Elliot, and boy, did I find something interesting towards the end of the book.  Before I tell you what it was, let’s do a little “if-then” reasoning first.  Suppose that God does not exist and evolutionary theory tells the correct story about how we got here.  For our purposes, the important thing about that story is that all living things, all their behaviors and all their parts exist and are what they are because they were successful relative to the struggle for survival.

More specifically, they were effective in contributing towards (or at least did not hinder) the tasks of finding food, getting away from danger, fighting when needed, and reproducing efficiently. If this is the correct story of our origins, then the human behaviors that are most conducive to human flourishing should be those that are closely connected to these tasks.

Now suppose that the God of the Bible is real, He created us and, irrespective of how He did it, He put us here for a purpose.  If this is the correct account of our origins, then according to the Bible, certain things will be central to human flourishing:  daily gratitude to God for the things of life, learning to give and receive love, seeking and learning to give forgiveness, finding ultimate meaning and purpose in life according to why we were put here in the first place.  And, yes, regularly worshipping God in fellowship with the believing community, e.g., regular church attendance.

According to the naturalistic evolutionary account, human flourishing should be achieved through behaviors associated with power, sexual attraction, physical health, social position, and wealth (since wealth should make one less vulnerable to living conditions that shorten life).  According to the biblical account, human flourishing should be achieved through spiritual, moral behaviors associated with living a righteous, loving, grateful life of meaning and purpose according to the way we were created to function, all the while seeking forgiveness for our wrongs and offering it to those who have wronged us.  What we have here are two very different “if-then”s.

Here’s where Depression for Dummies comes in.  Summarizing the findings of empirical psychology, Smith and Elliot note some interesting facts.  Contrary to what you might think, power (for example, money, education, success), health, sexual attractiveness, and being youthful are not all that important as factors conducive to happiness and human flourishing.  This finding runs counter to what we should expect if the naturalistic evolutionary story were true.  So these findings provide some disconfirming data for this evolutionary story.

But the findings of empirical psychology don’t stop there.  Smith and Elliot list in this order the factors that are, in fact, conducive to happiness and human flourishing:  At the top of the list is living with gratitude—a sense of thankfulness in life.  Next were unselfishly caring for others, learning to give and receive forgiveness, finding a deep sense of meaning and purpose in life by giving oneself to a larger framework than the individual’s own life.  Two things stand out about this list.  First, they are exactly what one would expect if the biblical account is true.  So these findings provide some confirming data for the biblical account.

Second, several items on the list are absolutely absurd on the naturalistic evolutionary account but they make rational sense on the biblical account.  For example, one can’t be grateful for something (a new car) without being grateful to someone (the person who bought it for you as a gift) for that thing.  And one can express gratitude only towards another intelligent, conscious being. One cannot be grateful to a fencepost, the moon, or a collection of atoms.  On an atheistic view, one can be happy that the ocean is turquoise, but one can’t be grateful for this since there is no one to whom to be grateful.  Unfortunately, the psychological data show that it is gratitude that brings happiness.  Happiness does not create itself.

It would seem, then, that a crucial precondition for health (regular church attendance) and essential facilitators of happiness are exactly what one would predict if biblical theism were true, but are hard to explain if evolutionary naturalism were true.

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One Response to 'Thinking about how to be healthy and happy'

  1. Joel Hughes says:

    The problem with the Stanford student’s reasoning is that the studies are descriptive (e.g., epidemiology) and not randomized controlled trials (RCT) because you cannot randomly assign some to attend church and others to not attend (even if you did it would not be meaningful). Remember hormone replacement therapy? In epidemiological research it was consistently associated with reduced cardiac disease in post-menopausal women until the RCT (Women’s Health Initiative) showed that hormone replacement therapy actually increased risk of heart attack.

    Thus, the evidence is suggestive but not conclusive that church attendance CAUSES increased longevity. The two are associated, yes. But causal?

    Nonetheless, the research is intriguing and the argument that we would not expect this given naturalism is sound. I just think it’s important to be careful about over-interpreting scientific research.

    A good reference on this topic is Koenig, McCullough, and Larson’s Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford U press, 2001)