Want to know the secret to happiness? Ask regular churchgoers.

As the poster year for hardship that was 2020 came to a much-anticipated end, a rather telling Gallup poll about happiness quietly passed under the radar. In a year where many people across all demographics reported a decrease in overall mental health, one group reported an increase: regular churchgoers.

The poll was the latest in a yearly Health and Healthcare survey that Gallup has conducted since 2001 in which they ask Americans to assess their own mental or emotional wellbeing as excellent, good, fair or poor. While those who rate their mental health positively has historically always fallen within the range of 81 to 89 percent, 2020 marked a new low. Seventy six percent of Americans rated their mental health positively as 2020 concluded, down nine points from 2019.

In layman’s terms, what this poll showed is that Americans were less happy in 2020 than they’ve been in quite some time. It’s not surprising; the COVID-19 pandemic forced everybody into isolation, requiring the sacrifice of face-to-face, human connection for a less gratifying virtual counterpart. Many of the normal activities that keep people’s spirits up, such as working out at the gym or seeing a movie at the movie theater were also stripped away, leaving people with fewer outlets to depend upon for contentment.

The survey also looked at the changes in Americans’ rating of their mental health as excellent between 2019 and 2020 according to different demographic groups: Gender, political party, religious service attendance, race, marital status, age and household income. Across the board, every single group saw a downward trend of those who rated their mental health as excellent – all of them, except for one. 

The only group to see an upward trend in reporting excellent mental health in 2020 were those who identified as religious and said they attended church every week. This group also had the highest level of excellent mental health compared to all of the other sub-groups.

A despairing trend

While the pandemic may have amplified the hopelessness many Americans report feeling, data suggests that the catalyst for this decreased mental health existed well before COVID-19 hit our shores. In April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study that found the national suicide rate had increased by 35 percent between 1999 and 2018. What’s worse is that the rate by which people commit suicide became greater after 2006, with an average increase of 2.1 percent each year. Perhaps most sobering of all, the CDC has reported for at the least the past 10 years that suicide – classified as “intentional self-harm – is among the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States, a country with the highest standard of living ever in human history. Even more sobering is the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34 – the very age range with the highest concentration of “nones.”

The only group to see an upward trend in reporting excellent mental health in 2020 were those who identified as religious and said they attended church every week. This group also had the highest level of excellent mental health compared to all of the other sub-groups.

Suicide is most closely linked with poor mental health, but yet another 2020 study shed greater light on these “deaths of despair” and found that a despairing mind is not necessarily always linked to a mental disorder. The study was conducted in the wake of the release of the book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, and researchers developed a “despair scale” which measured levels of despair among young people based on seven despair indicators. 

What they found was both fascinating and alarming; despair – the leading cause of suicide, which is strongly correlated with drug abuse and alcoholism – is more appropriately linked to a downhearted state of mind than to mental disorders such as depression or anxiety. And while the pandemic may have contributed to this widespread despair, it is certainly not the sole cause. Anne Case, one of the co-authors of Deaths of Despairs, poignantly observed: “Deaths of despair are a long-term phenomenon that will be with us after the COVID-19 crisis is over.”

While the evidence is not conclusive, these findings still beg the question: could it be that our society’s growing rejection of God and the subsequent rise of measurable despair are related?

Finding meaning in suffering

“The overall trend makes just perfect sense to me, for a couple of reasons,” said Dr. Jim Langley, a clinical psychologist and Executive Director of St. Raphael’s Counseling. “The main reason is that in a godless world, suffering makes absolutely no sense. There’s no meaning to it. There’s no purpose for it. So as a culture, when we encounter something that affects us on such a large scale, the secular mind really can only think of it as pointless, meaningless suffering. There’s no reason for it. There’s no reason to grow through it. Because of that, you experience this learned helplessness. And that’s actually a huge part of what’s going on.”

Many Americans reported all-time low mental health states in 2020. However, the only group to see an increase in reported “excellent” mental health were those who went to church each week, and they also reported the highest level of positive mental health compared to all other demographics. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Dr. Langley referenced a psychological study conducted in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania where dogs were placed on floors that administered mild electric shocks. When the dogs were shocked, they tried to escape; however, upon realizing there was no means to get away, the dogs simply gave up and laid there, only to continue being shocked. Even when the researchers opened the door to give the dogs an out, they’d continue laying there – they wouldn’t do anything to help themselves.

“That’s a big part of what I think is going on in society, is we don’t have any meaning or purpose behind this challenge,” Dr. Langley explained. “There’s no reason for spiritual growth.

“But contrast that with a religious person,” Dr. Langley continued. “We can see that there is meaning in suffering and I can understand the purpose of spiritual growth, even through times of struggle. Most faiths, but especially the Christian faith, teaches you that your life is not about just getting everything you want and remaining in control. Its message is pretty opposite of the secular world.”

Beyond just the notion of forfeiting control to the divine, the Christian message is also one that gives life a greater meaning than what the secular mind purports. In fact, from a purely psychological standpoint, there are countless studies which have shown that religious people lead happier, more fulfilling lives overall than those who are not religious.

“It’s interesting that the world rejects religion so much, because research shows that there’s so many psychological protective factors that lead to happiness and peace and increased mental health,” Dr. Langley explained. “The biggest one is the idea that religion provides a built-in value system that works. Purely secular values can make you feel happy in the short term and yet in the long run, what people long for is fulfillment. We’re not looking for happiness, we’re actually looking for fulfillment.”

As those with a healthy prayer life will also attest, there are many studies which have also found that those who maintain regular spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation have healthier psychological makeups and are therefore more psychologically resilient in general, Dr. Langley said.

Made for relationship

To believe there is “something” rather than “nothing” is empowering for human beings. As Father Bryan Duggan puts it, it allows us to abandon the sense of control that is so inherent in each of us and admit that we are powerless without God, who is ultimately the one who’s in control of our lives.

“Someone who is living in relationship with God has a healthy sense of, ‘there’s some things in my life that I can control and there’s some things that I really do abandon to divine providence,’” said Father Duggan, who is a priest of Diocese of Vancouver and a doctoral candidate currently interning with St. Raphael. 

Father Duggan referred to the example of Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who is best known for pioneering logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy which describes a search for a life meaning as the central human motivational force. Frankl described his experience of surviving various Nazi concentration camps in his bestselling book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Human beings were made for relationship, and it’s relationships that give our lives meaning. Meaningful relationships, intimate relationships, and relationships with family and friends are all very important, but ultimately, it’s our relationship with God that’s most important. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“[Frankl] observed that those who found a reason to live were more likely to survive [in the concentration camps], and [he] observed this in himself,” Father Duggan said. “He found a reason, some meaning in his life that kept him going and kept him with some sense of hope, even when it seemed like all hope was lost.”

For Frankl, it was his relationship with his wife, Tilly Grosser, that kept him going while he suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Frankl was simply searching for what we’re all searching for: A reason to live. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” While this remains ever truer in 2021, Father Duggan urged that it doesn’t have to remain this way.

“There’s always that desire for more, for our lives to be meaningful. I think it’s getting in touch with that and being honest with ourselves about where that is manifest in our lives and really engaging with that question of, ‘Why do I get up in the morning?’ ‘What is meaningful for me in my life?’” Father Duggan concluded. “Ultimately, we’re made for relationship, and it’s relationships that give our lives meaning. [It’s] prioritizing those meaningful relationships, our intimate relationships, our family and ultimately, our relationship with God.” 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”