Churchgoers happier, stats show

By on November 1, 1998

Some people try Prozac, others pop Valium, but it appears regular church-going could be just what the doctor ordered to get happy.

According to a recent study by Statistics Canada, people who attend church, synagogue or temple every week are happier and healthier. They also have more enduring marriages.

The report by Statscan says religious teachings about the sanctity of marriage may help prevent divorce by reducing infidelity.

The study is based on data from 1995 and 1996 which shows that 80 per cent of regular attenders of religious services are likely to have marriages that last 15 years or more. People who don’t attend church or regular religious services have only a 57 per cent chance their marriage will last 15 years.

Church people also give their marriage high marks. Odds show them as having a 1.5 times greater chance of describing their marriage as “very happy.”

Some officials with the Anglican Church think the data backs up the old adage, “families that pray together, stay together.”

“I’m encouraged by it,” said Rev. Ralph Billard, rector at St. Mary the Virgin in St. John’s, Nfld.

“It’s been my experience that people who are involved in the church have a happy home life,” said Mr. Billard, who has performed many marriage ceremonies and has counselled couples experiencing problems during his 31 years as an Anglican priest. “But when we say it, it sounds like we’re beating our own drum so it’s nice to be backed up by a secular institution like Statscan.

“It’s what we’ve been saying all along, that those who let God be part of their lives are blessed.”

But not everyone believes it’s necessarily the religious teachings of a spiritual life that do good things for marriage and quality of life.

“I don’t think you can downplay the role that community plays,” said Diane Marshall, a registered marriage and family therapist and clinical director of the Institute of Family Living in Toronto.

Ms. Marshall said the church can help a person have a successful and satisfying marriage simply by providing a reliable support network. When couples run into problems, they have people they trust to turn for advice.

“A faith may inspire a person to have a vision of hope and so they may reach out for help,” whereas a person not involved in church or synagogue may have no one to turn to.

Ms. Marshall said isolation can be deadly for a marriage, particularly these days when many young couples live far from family and friends.

“When they feel isolated, they don’t know where to reach out to get help.”

She said couples having problems who attend church, however, are often referred to organizations such as the Institute for Family Living by their priest or rabbi. That way, they get the professional and emotional support they need.

Although Ms. Marshall said a feeling of community is a big part of helping married couples, she also thinks spiritual devotion can help strengthen relationships.

“We live in a consumer culture where some people treat relationships as things to consume and discard,” she said. A religious faith, however, may inspire people to appreciate the deeper meaning of their relationships and prompt them to work on it, rather than abandon it, she said.

Walter Deller, director of program resources with the Diocese of Toronto, said religious belief can also help people find more compatible partners.

“Most religious people have more stable relationships because they’re clear about their values,” Dr. Deller said. “Stability in relationships comes out of clarity in values … They might also have a deeper sense of the sacredness of commitment.”

Margaret Fisher Brillinger, a family and marriage therapist in Toronto, warns against reading too much into the Statscan study.

“The problem with looking at stats like this is that it doesn’t tell you anything about particular people that are right in front of you,” Dr. Fisher Brillinger said.

But she acknowledges the church can do a lot to help.

“The church is in a wonderful position to be able to do a lot of marriage education and pre-marriage education and marriage support. I see that as what’s important.”

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