Religious involvement, helping others, and psychological well-being

spirituality healthy

Every major religion in the world places a significant emphasis on the virtue of helping people who are in need (Lundberg, 2010; Neusner & Chilton, 2005). As research on helping others began to develop, it quickly became evident that support providers often benefit as much (or even more) than the people they set out to assist.
For example, a study by Piferi and Lawler (2006) reveals that individuals who give support to others have a lower systolic blood pressure, lower diastolic blood pressure, lower mean arterial pressure, and a lower heart rate than those who do not help others as often. Similarly, Warner, Schuz, Wurm, Ziegelmann, and Tesch-Tomer (2010) report that providing support is associated with a higher quality of life. But perhaps the most convincing evidence of the benefits of helping others is found in a study by Brown, Nesse, Vinokur, and Smith (2003). These investigators report that providing support to others is associated with a mortality risk that is lower than the mortality risk that is associated with receiving support from social network members.
Although the research that is discussed above provides a number of valuable insights, the studies we have reviewed so far have all been conducted outside the context of religion. This is unfortunate because researchers and scholars have been arguing for over a century that social relationships lie at the heart of religion and that helping others may be the most important way in which these social ties are manifest. Evidence of this may be found, for example, in the work of Josiah Royce. Writing in 1912, Royce maintained that the very essence of religion may be found in the relationships that are formed among the faithful. But rather than discussing church-based social relationships in general, Royce (1912/2001) went on to argue that helping others may be the key: “…the best service of …religion …consists of helping our brethren not to our own, but to their own” (p. 297, emphasis in the original). Similar views on the importance of helping others are found in the work of contemporary scholars, as well. We discuss two here. The first is John Cottingham, a widely cited philosopher of religion. In the process of discussing attendance at worship services, he argues that, “…no true believer could possibly maintain that attendance at such events is, in itself, either a necessary or sufficient condition for salvation …nothing overrides or displaces the necessity of the requirement to help the afflicted” (Cottingham, 2009, p. 134).
Robert Bellah, a well-known sociologist of religion, was a second contemporary scholar who speaks to the importance of helping others. In his essay on Max Weber’s work on religion, Bellah (2006) focuses on the notion of “world-denying love”, which he defines as love for friends, strangers, and enemies alike. He goes on to point out that this world-denying love involves helping others and sharing resources with those who are in need. In fact, Bellah (2006) goes as far as to argue that this view is “…perhaps the key in Weber’s entire corpus” (p. 124, emphasis in the original).
Taken together, the work of Royce (1912/2001), Cottingham (2009), and Bellah (2006) converges on a common theme. If social relationships lie at the heart of religion and if helping others is the most important way these social ties are manifest, then perhaps one of the greatest benefits that can be derived from being involved in religion has to do with providing assistance to people who are in need.
A growing body of research is consistent with the views of the scholars we discuss above. More specifically, these studies suggest the strong social support systems that arise within religious institutions are a central element in religious life (Krause, 2008) and helping others may be an especially important way in which the socially based benefits of religious life arise. For example, like Brown et al. (2003), Krause (2006) found that providing support to others is associated with a lower mortality risk than receiving assistance from social network members.
Similarly, Krause (2009) reports that older adults who provide more tangible support to their fellow church members tend to rate their health in a more favorable way than older people who provide less tangible assistance to others. However, the research that has been conducted within religious institutions so far has focused primarily on providing support to fellow church members. This overlooks a potentially important facet of the religiously motivated helping process.
The participants in the current study all self-identify as Christians. This is important because a special emphasis is placed on Christianity on the distinction between helping family members and close friends and helping strangers or individuals whom a support provider does not know well. Evidence of this may be found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus spoke directly to the special benefit of helping strangers: “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans do the same?” (Matthew 5:46, King James Version; see also 1 Chronicles 29:15).
In the analyses that follow, we compare and contrast the effects of providing tangible support to family members and close friends on psychological well-being with the effects of giving tangible support to strangers. Tangible support refers to instrumental behavior that helps a person directly: the support provider intervenes personally in the problem situation and takes practical action like providing transportation, helping with household obligations, or helping financially. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time this issue has been evaluated empirically. In the process of assessing the effects of providing support to others, we develop a conceptual model that casts the study of the helping process in a richer theoretical context.

A conceptual model of providing support to others and psychological well-being
The conceptual model we developed to examine the relationship between helping close others, helping strangers, and psychological well-being is shown in Figure 1. Two steps were taken to simplify the presentation of this complex theoretical scheme.
First, the elements of the measurement model (i.e., the factor loadings and measurement error terms) are not shown in this diagram even though a full measurement model was estimated when this conceptual scheme was evaluated empirically.
Second, the model shown in Figure 1 was evaluated after the effects of age, sex, education, marital status, and race were controlled statistically (i.e., treated as exogenous variables). These demographic control variables were included in the model because prior research indicates that they are associated with religion and the well-being outcomes (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009).
It should be emphasized that all of the paths shown in Figure 1 were estimated during the data analytic phase of this study (i.e., we estimated a fully saturated model). However, in order to focus on the theoretical process we have in mind, the discussion that is provided below is concerned solely with the following core conceptual linkages: (1) individuals who go to church more often will receive more spiritual support from fellow church members; (2) those who receive more spiritual support will provide more tangible assistance to family members and friends as well as strangers; and (3) individuals who help close others and strangers will report greater life satisfaction and a stronger sense of self-worth. The theoretical rationale for these relationships is provided below.
Church attendance and spiritual support
There are two reasons why church attendance serves as the point of departure in our model. First, attendance at worship services is a major conduit for the transmission of religious beliefs and principles. Fundamental religious tenets are embedded in the sermons, hymns, and congregational prayers that are part of the typical worship service. This is one reason why Stark and Finke (2000) propose that, “Confidence in religious explanations increases to the extent that people participate in religious rituals” (p. 107).
Second, as Krause (2008) argues, religious principles are also transmitted and reinforced through the provision of informal spiritual support. Spiritual support is defined as assistance that is given by fellow church members with the intent of bolstering the religious beliefs and behaviors of the support recipient. But in order for an individual to receive spiritual support from others, they must obviously come into contact with potential support providers. Attendance at worship services provides an opportunity for this type of contact to take place. However, it is unlikely that spiritual support will be exchanged simply because two individuals come into contact with each other at church. Instead, spiritual support is more likely to be provided when two individuals have a longer relationship history. As McFadden, Knepple, and Armstrong (2003) point out, discussing personal spiritual matters can be a sensitive issue and as a result, a person may feel put-off or resentful if someone they do not know well attempts to broach these issues with them. Instead, spiritual support is more likely to take root when both the provider and the recipient feel comfortable in the relationship they have developed. Repeated interaction through regular church attendance helps to foster this type of close social relationship.
Church attendance, spiritual support, and providing support to others
There are two reasons why the frequency of attendance at worship services and spiritual support should influence how much support study participants provide to others. The first reason involves a simple logical extension of the argument that has been developed so far. If helping others is a key religious virtue and if church attendance and spiritual support are major venues for the transmission of core religious precepts, then it follows that people who go to church more often, as well as individuals who receive more spiritual support, should help others more frequently. Moreover, if a special emphasis is placed in Christianity on helping strangers, then the relationships between church attendance, spiritual support, and helping strangers should be stronger than the corresponding relationships between attendance at worship services, spiritual support, and helping family members and close friends.
The second reason why church attendance and spiritual support should be associated with helping others is found in the basic tenets of Social Identity Theory (Hogg, Abrams, Otten, & Hinkle, 2004). A social identity refers to an individual’s knowledge that he or she belongs to a social group coupled with the emotional significance and value they place on this group membership. As Hogg et al. (2004) point out, when a person identifies with a group, he or she internalizes the norms and behaviors of the group.
A key issue for the current study involves specifying how this process of internalization takes place within the context of the church. According to our conceptual model, attendance at worship services and informal spiritual support from like-minded religious others underscores the values and behaviors that are important to the group (i.e., helping others) and therefore should be internalized. Moreover, guidance provided during worship services and interaction with fellow church members provides strategies that are useful for helping others succeed.
Learning how to help others is important because research indicates that the social support process is fragile and can easily go awry (Coyne, Wortman, & Lehman, 1988). Consequently, a person must learn how to give the support at the right time and in the best way. According to our conceptual scheme, both church attendance and informal spiritual support provide the insight that is necessary to be an effective support provider.
Helping others, life satisfaction, and self-esteem
Life satisfaction and self-esteem serve as the two markers of psychological well-being in our conceptual scheme. There are two reasons why helping others should be associated with these outcomes. The first may be found by turning to the notion of prototypes that forms the cornerstone of Social Identity Theory (Hogg et al., 2004). Prototypes are cognitive representations of group norms that serve as a yardstick for gauging successful enactment of an identity. When a person internalizes and successfully executes group prototypes, they demonstrate their commitment to the group. And when a person provides concrete evidence of their commitment to the group, they are likely to be embraced by fellow in-group members. This positive feedback should, in turn, bolster feelings of self-worth. In the process, positive feedback from in-group members should signal the successful achievement of group goals. This feedback provides one way of determining whether one’s life has been a success. So, if the virtue of helping others is a core tenet of the faith and if a person adheres to this prototype of helping others, then it follows that the positive feedback from fellow church members should enhance their sense of self-worth and the degree to which they are satisfied with their lives. And if a greater value is placed in the church on helping strangers, then the effects of successfully helping strangers on well-being should be especially pronounced.
The second reason why helping others may enhance psychological well-being is found in the notion of the helper principle that was developed by Reissman (1965). He argues that providing assistance to those who are less fortunate makes a clear and unambiguous statement about the support provider’s character that is admired widely in American culture. So, if a religious group values helping others and an individual is able to help others successfully, then the framework developed by Reissman (1965) would suggest that he or she should experience a greater sense of self-worth and life satisfaction.

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