Farewell my lonely: Science reveals how faith can help meet social needs

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“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” –Psalm 25:16.

The generation of migrants who left Romania when it was under communist rule faced suspicion from two sides.

Distrust from the native population in the land they settled in, and the fears of other migrants that they may be an extension of the state security system.

For people like Ileana, 70, who made a home in Switzerland, there was only one place to turn.

“In life I was disappointed by friends. Friend is only God. He knows me, I pray, I tell him my sorrow and He understands me,” she told researchers studying the relationship between religion and loneliness among Romanian migrants.

The in-depth study by Swiss and Dutch researchers is part of an emerging body of research on religion and mental health branching out to specific areas such as loneliness.

The researchers are finding that both the social networks provided by religious communities and the intrinsic belief of being cared for by a loving divinity appear to protect against loneliness and related mental health dangers from depression to contemplating suicide.

Having a “best friend” in God can make a major difference, researchers in the Romanian study noted in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

“In addition to health, wealth and social embeddedness in society, religion can be another important factor to increase the well-being of older migrants – a factor that is too often overlooked by researchers, policymakers and practitioners.”

Role of faith

Chronic loneliness can be a significant mental health issue. Research has linked loneliness to several health issues, from alcohol abuse and eating disorders to depression and higher risk of mortality.

But research is showing that some of the same benefits of faith that have been associated with improved mental health may be helpful in addressing loneliness.

Consider findings from these studies:

Pillars of strength: In their fieldwork among 30 Romanian migrants, researchers identified several protective elements of faith, including being comforted by a divinity they believe is by their side.

Viviana, 51, a more recent immigrant to France, said faith is the “pillar” she relies on in her new home in France.

“I do not have any other support; I’ve never had any other support. We were always alone; alone I mean, us the family, but we always succeeded only through God,” she said.

Other benefits of religion included building networks of emotional, social and practical support at church.

Finding emotional support in humble faith: A University of Michigan study found attending worship services more often is associated with receiving more informal spiritual support from church members.

Receiving that support is in turn associated with greater humility. Humble people are generally more likable, and tend to receive more emotional support. And greater emotional support is associated with reduced loneliness.

The findings suggest that “one potential way of overcoming loneliness may be found by turning to the social relationships … in religious institutions and the virtues they promote,” researcher Neal Krause reported.

Social support: A 2013 study analyzing data from the National Social Life Health and Aging Project found that “involvement in religious institutions may protect against loneliness in later life by integrating older adults into larger and more supportive social networks.”

Yet not all expressions of faith produce positive outcomes.

Image from National Archives and Records Administration [Public Domain]

Worshipping alone

Anyone who has ever walked into a sanctuary where she or he is not greeted, sits alone throughout the service and departs without a friendly word knows even a house of worship can be a lonely place.

Several studies have found a perceived lack of acceptance and isolation can be particularly troubling to groups such as divorced individuals, who may already be struggling with feelings of guilt and personal failure.

And research has also consistently found that having an image of God as distant and judgmental, rather than personal and caring, can lead to worsened mental health. One might view loneliness as a divine punishment.

What is helpful, researchers suggest, is for counselors and religious leaders to be aware of how the faith of individuals may influence their ability to deal with loneliness.

Researchers in the study of Romanian migrants said their findings “clearly demonstrate” spiritual beliefs and practices can be effective in combating loneliness.

“Belief in and praying to God help them cope with everyday sorrows and overcome difficult moments. … We therefore make a strong plea for practitioners to pay more attention to emotion-focused coping strategies, especially if the loneliness problem is caused by circumstances beyond one’s control and in cases of limited personal resources.”

But it also helps for houses of worship to be welcoming communities promoting strong social networks, reaching out in particular to those in need.

Ilona, 65, a Romanian immigrant in Switzerland, found a safe, reassuring place in her Romanian Orthodox church.

“‘I feel as if I am in Romania when I’m there,” she said. “How can I tell you, I say I am in Romania when I’m there.”

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