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Dazed and Amazed by Moonlight

– Exploring Sense of Meaning as the Mediator of the Effects of Religion, Belonging, and Benevolence on Well-Being
Professor in Church and Social Studies, Docent in Welfare Sociology, Th.D., Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki, Finland

This article is located at and motivated by the intersection of two grand narratives of current times: the search for meaning and well-being. My aim in this article is to critically review the entanglements of the two core concepts – well-being and meaningfulness – and to explore both religion and, more especially, the expertise of sociologists of religion in relation to them. The core argument of the article centres on the bridging role of sense of meaning: meaningfulness is a more crucial mediator between religion and well-being than that which is usually depicted. The article consists of three parts: the first part introduces the concept of well-being, and criticism of it, as well as contributing illustrations of the critical core assets – particularly of sociologists of religion – in these issues. The second part explores the exact role of religion, benevolence and belonging with respect to well-being, while the third offers reflections of and on sociology, in relation to the core issue of well-being.

Keywords: Religion, religiosity, well-being, emotions, meaningfulness, sense of meaning, belonging, sense of belonging, altruism, benevolence


In the era of the search for authenticity (e.g. Taylor 1992), the themes of wellness, wellbeing, and taking care of one’s physical and psychological health are central topics. At the same time, novel and multifaceted forms of communality and togetherness, combined with a focus on independence and self-actualisation, create a fascinating landscape for individual sources of meaningfulness. What makes my life meaningful? To whom do I matter? What is the purpose of my life? What best serves my well-being? These are the core issues in much of, on the one hand, sociological and psychological debate of today, and on the other hand, popular literature of well-being and self help.

This article is located at and is motivated by the intersection of these two grand narratives of current times: the search for both meaning and well-being. My aim in this article1 is to review critically the entanglements of the two core concepts – well-being and meaningfulness – and to explore both religion and, more particularly, the expertise of sociologists of religion in relation to them. The core argument of the article centres on the seldom explored and explicated bridging role of sense of meaning: meaningfulness is a more crucial mediator between religion and well-being than that which is usually depicted.

The wide array of literature reviewed in this article defines religion and religiosity in many different manners; the literature represents studies from various fields. In most of the studies, as well as in my own studies, the definition of religion builds on subjective religiosity: people experiencing and defining religiosity themselves, and researchers not imposing their definition of religiosity upon them. For instance, in the various studies of the linkages between religiosity and well-being, most surveys build on subjective religiosity and thus ask the informants about, for example, the importance of religiosity in one’s life, without an explicit definition of religion. This choice relates to the wider issue of subjective versus objective estimates of one’s well-being, or religiosity, or other matters, a critical issue that I will come back to in this article.

The article proceeds through three themes: the first part introduces the concept of wellbeing, criticism of it, as well as contributing illustrations of the critical core assets of, in particular, sociologists of religion in these issues. The second part explores the exact role of religion, benevolence and belonging with respect to well-being, and the third part then offers reflections of and on sociology, in relation to the core issue of well-being.

Well-Being – from Criticism Towards the Critical Assets of Sociologists of Religion

The topic of well-being – with its various synonyms and neighbouring concepts, such as wellness and welfare – is a treacherous path for both empirical and theoretical explorations. Well-being is a widely-used concept outside academia too, and is a common topic in the media. Well-being, according to both general public usage, and its dictionary definition, is about good health and fortune; the state of being well. Academically, there are four distinct reasons to be critical regarding the concept. The scattered nature of it is the first. It is indeed a very general term2 referring to the condition of an individual, group, or – and this is often forgotten – society; “condition” referring to an economic, psychological, medical, or other, state (e.g. Diener and Ryan 2010). In spite of the diffuse literature, there are two main perspectives from which well-being has been conceptualized and explored: the eudaimonic tradition principally interested in positive psychological functioning and development (e.g. Waterman 1993; Ryff 1989; Ryff and Singer 2008), and the hedonic tradition focusing on happiness, positive affect, and satisfaction with life (e.g. Diener and Ryan 2010; Kahneman, Diener and Schwarz 1999; Diener and Seligman 2004).3 Societal well-being, then, concerns elements such as trust and social connectedness, cohesion and equality.4

The second source of criticism of the concept of well-being relates to the fact that it is more biased than often realized; it is a societally-bound concept: What do we consider well-being to be about and why? For instance, as Nordic scholars we are impacted by the ideal of a welfare state, and our ideal is surely much more rooted in and built upon Lutheranism than it is given credit for. Thirdly, research – and news and headlines on it – creates reality. With a deeply non-neutral concept such as well-being, views may easily be distorted, both inside and outside academia. That is, it is personally, never and for no one, a value-neutral concept.

The fourth source of caution relates to the subjective understanding of well-being. It has been the core narrative for some time, in research and media; in surveys, people are asked to estimate the state and sources of their well-being themselves. There is much positive to be said about this: individuals are heard. However, what is not addressed is that such an approach has a rather strong embedded individualism, even if this is not usually interpreted. That is, such an approach carries an individualistic view of humans, and not just concerning well-being. “What works for you, is good for you – that is well-being to you,” seems to be the core message, both in the indicators and the literature, academic and non-academic. Individual horizons of significance are the reference point, and themes such as choice, consumerism, self-chosen communities, individualistic religiosity and spirituality are emphasized and explored. This relates to my first point here: the catch-all nature of the concept of well-being. Subjective well-being is very often – even in broad literature reviews – used as a synonym for happiness. Subjective well-being then equals happiness. However, happiness and subjective well-being are very culturally bound concepts and currently few studies exist on their meanings. As Delle Fave, in her presentation in summer 2016 at the European Congress of Positive Psychology pointed out: “We should start from the people and street, not scientist and labs!”

The traditional approach is the use of objective measures of well-being, such as GDP, or an examination of individuals’ health or socio-economic status. With this method, the uniform measure of official statistics determines the level of well-being. The focus is not on individual choice but rather on what the numbers say. With regard to religion, most such studies look at the institutional religiosity of the national religious landscape. This is not a black-and-white divide, of course, but most studies use only one of these measurements (subjective or objective), thus there are wider questions of differing methodological approaches to consider.5

Furthermore, there are distinct advantages and shortcomings in both approaches. Regarding objective measurements of well-being, the problem is that there is an obvious mismatch: for instance, growth in national wealth is not correlated with increase in subjective well-being (Eckersley 2014), and there is a decline of personal and social well-being in spite of the continued progress of wealth (see Wong 2012, 1998). The downside of subjective approaches to well-being is that they pay far too little attention to societal indicators, as well as to the societal effects of well-being.6 What do I mean by this? There are two points. First, societal participation promotes subjective well-being, as active individuals have higher well-being – but what is often not emphasized is the other causal direction: well-being affects participation. People with higher level of well-being are able to be socially and societally more active.7 Well-being is the beginning as much as the end of the story.

Second, recent studies illustrate that societal elements – such as social trust – are much more linked to subjective well-being than to GDP. If societal trust goes down, drops in subjective well-being are far greater than that explained by GDP. That is, subjective well-being is strongly affected by trust, even more so than by economic factors (Helliwell, Huang and Wang 2013). Here, I also wish to underline a point I made earlier: with religion, the focus is too exclusively on individualistic measurements, individual spirituality and/or religiosity. Studies of subjective well-being should definitively include the exploration of societal elements.

Both these two points – on individuals and the societal elements – are critical as the findings of massive international studies of subjective well-being are utilized for policy planning.

So, we need a more sociological approach and expertise to deepen and widen the concept and phenomenon of well-being. Well-being is not just an issue at the level of the individual. Various sociological determinants – social, economic, organizational, institutional, political, and so on, affect individual well-being both positively and negatively. The role of power, gender, norms and class must also be taken into account in the exploration of subjective well-being. Furthermore, whether a society is culturally more community- or individually-oriented influences the entire understanding of well-being. The other direction is fascinating too: individuals, with higher well-being, can be true agents, making a difference, and changing their societies.

So, sociologists are needed in studies of subjective well-being – and I claim that we sociologists of religion have appropriate assets here. Sociologists have tended to prefer objective measures of well-being, and measure, for example, social cohesion or equality. Sociologists are more interested in what people do, particularly in collectivities, and not so much in how they feel; sociologists still often consider subjective well-being as a concept at the individual level, a mental state (Veenhoven 2008). Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven has even expressed that if “people appear to feel subjectively good in conditions deemed to be objectively bad, the discrepancy is easily disposed (in sociology) as ʻdesirability bias’ or ʻfalse consciousness’” (Veenhoven 2008, 44). This of course appears to be a rather provocative notion, and there are strands in sociology, such as sociology of emotions, focusing on emotions. But even as sociology explores emotions, sociologists easily look at emotional states primarily as social constructions, paying much less attention to the affect of positive and negative power of emotions on well-being for individuals, groups and thus society too. Sociologists of religion use not only societal and social levels of analysis, but also qualitative analysis and case studies at the individual level. We have a lot to offer for the study of subjective well-being.

Furthermore, we have another particular asset here, too: sociology of religion holds in its heart the very core themes that are currently being called for in the approach to objective measurements of well-being. What is called for (e.g. Hämäläinen and Michaelson 2014) is further understanding of human lives and human experiences of well-being.8 Moving towards there goes beyond economic success indicators. Some novel indicators of national well-being already exist: the Social Progress Index, for instance, designed to measure not wealth but living conditions, an individual’s prospects, and the functioning of a society. We are naturally not the only scholars of social sciences working on these issues but our definite asset here, as sociologists of religion, is our expertise on themes such as values, ethics, the good life, experiences of the sacred and of the transcendent. The background in non-confessional theological studies, in sociology of religion and Church and social studies – that many of us have – is an added bonus with such issues. Recently, even within the subjective approach to well-being, a deeper understanding of existential issues has been called for (Eckersley 2014; White, Gaines and Jha 2012). The subjective approach to well-being has a difficult time explaining the increases in the fear of death in countries of high subjective and objective well-being (Eckersley 2014). Such issues related to existentialism and mortality are pertinent assets of theologians.

To tie this together, as scholars of sociology of religion we are able to bridge the two: the subjective and objective approaches of well-being. We are able to bring subjective elements to the objective, and societal elements to the subjective. We can be bridge-builders here not only in terms of our methods, as other scholars can also be, but in terms of content, too. My core argument is that one such particular bridge is in sense of meaning.

Sense of Meaning as a Bridge between Subjective and Objective Well-Being

Before diving deeper into the issue of meaningfulness one must ask: what is the meaning of meaning? The experience of having a sense of meaning is “both a cognitive and an emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value,” constructed both socially and individually (Wong 1998; also see a review by Park 2010). Meaning is about what our life is directed at and guided by (Frankl [1946] 2006). As social psychologists Frank Martela and Michael Steger (2015) capture and explore, sense of meaning has to do with three separate and also deeply interrelated elements: coherence, purpose, and sense of significance. For psychologist Roy Baumeister (1991, 2005; Baumeister et al. 2013), perhaps the most central name in the study of sense of meaning, his holistic theory of sense of meaning defines four needs for meaning, that are also seen as the ingredients for meaning: purpose, efficacy, positive value, and sense of positive self-worth. All four must be based on one’s daily experiences.

Experiencing meaning in one’s life is indeed a crucial element in well-being. In relation to the objective measurements of well-being: sense of meaning strongly promotes health and well-being; contrarily, the belief that one’s life is meaningless is associated with a range of negative outcomes, such as depression (Debats, Van der Lubbe and Wezeman 1993; Mascaro and Rosen 2005), and suicidal thoughts (Harlow, Newcomb and Bentler 1986). (See also, e.g. King et al. 2006; Auhagen and Holub 2006; King and Hicks 2009; O Connor and Chamberlain 1996)9 Most empirical studies have been driven by subjective evaluations such as “My life has a clear sense of purpose” (e.g. Steger et al. 2006; Steger, Kashdan and Oishi 2008; Steger, Oishi and Kesebir 2011). Thus it is rather surprising that sense of meaning is exclusively studied in relation to – and seen as part of – subjective well-being. I consider it neither possible to have a subjective sense of well-being, nor objectively measured well-being, without a sense of meaning, without a sense that one matters to someone, or to some cause.

A particular point of interest – had I more time and space – would be the relationship between purpose and meaning, and the role of religion in them; the reliability of self-assessment is of course always less than trustworthy (Lambert et al. 2013, 1419), but religiosity certainly plays a distinct role not only in the content of the replies to these questions, but also the way we view them. For instance, individuals socialized by religious institutions may be more inclined to consider, and rate, their lives “meaningful” and “purposeful” (see Pessi 2011).

Furthermore, sense of meaning is a particularly valuable bridge and vantage point to various approaches to well-being as it illustrates a wider multifaceted phenomenon in society: people searching for something deeper; deeper meaning in several arenas of life – well-being being one arena reflected by, and promoted by, this search. I am not referring to any grand voyage or change of life here, nor the pondering of meaning in an existential crisis. I refer to the fact that many people seem to search for a certain depth, search for meaning, in their everyday lives, a deeper ethical dimension, for instance, or an experience of togetherness. This search is most likely related to religion too, evident in spiritual experiences and quests. Too few studies, however, exist on this in recent sociological values studies. Much depth can currently be found in studies on the preferences concerning work places as well as in the literature on meaning and purpose at work and on changes in business culture (see Haque 2011).

Sense of meaning is not only crucial to well-being but also to happiness. Subjective well-being is actually very often used as a synonym for happiness, although this is problematic.10 One can ponder: if one had to choose, would one choose meaningfulness over happiness, or would one rather choose to be happy? Studies indicate (e.g. Baumeister et al. 2013) that getting what one hopes for does indeed increase our happiness, but not our sense of meaning. Likewise, even if health and happiness is related, one can find life meaningful in the midst of pain, sorrow, and even inhumane conditions. In relation to other people, happiness is promoted particularly by getting something from others, but sense of meaning seems to be promoted by being able to give to others. All in all, finding meaning in life is much trickier than finding happiness, yet its benefits on well-being are far greater than those of happiness (e.g. Baumeister et al. 2013). To put it simply, those focusing on searching and fostering sense of meaning, over happiness, will be better off.

One may of course ask: is not sense of meaning in life just one form of the individualistic ethos, and thus more about the subjective well-being? Yes, meaningfulness is a subjective experience. But three points are crucial. First, the sources of sense of meaning have very much to do with the elements that the objective measurements try to capture, and in particular have much to do with non-individualistic sources of well-being: communities, belonging, chains of tradition, purpose, generativity, and also religion. The focus is not only on the self or on the social, but on both. Not only on individualism and authenticity, or collectivism and self-transcendence, but on both – “individually together,” as I have elsewhere (e.g. Pessi 2010) called this.

Second, sense of meaning also goes beyond subjectivity as it is naturally and very much affected by cultural and societal factors. Culture influences that which we find valuable and of deeper meaning. Third, sense of meaning is both a social and a societal force in itself, a powerful boost of energy; people and groups experiencing meaning are more likely to be active in their communities and societies. Sense of meaning and well-being are true powers of democracy.

Sociologists of religion have left the exploration of sense of meanings, and the wider perspective of meaning systems, far too much in the hands of psychologists. Meaningfulness holds such societal resonance and impact that not even psychology of religion can grasp the full picture. One illustration of the need for a sociological eye and mind here is the fact that in psychological studies, sense of meaning is considered to be universal part of human nature. Yes, it is definitely a basic human need. But, how is the search for meaning affected by our society? Then, going in the other direction: what do peoples’ searches tell us about our society? What are the social and societal structures and inequalities that make the search for meaning possible for some people11, yet difficult for others? Is the sense of and search for meaning a luxury of those who are the better well off, who have it all? Or is it something activated when one hits rock bottom, when one’s well-being is most threatened? Interdisciplinary cooperation is most definitely called for.

Religion Promoting Well-Being through Sense of Meaning

I have titled this article “Dazed and amazed by moonlight” – but why talk about the moon? Because, even if the sense of meaning is crucial to our well-being, and illustrates a wider search and today’s climate of values, it is actually empty. That is, regarding its light and its warmth, it is simply dead. Sense of meaning shines powerfully on well-being but it is light originated elsewhere. Sense of meaning only mediates. We have a lot of literature – as was illustrated above – exploring sense of meaning in life and its benefits on well-being. But the benefits of what, actually? What gives people sense of meaning in its deepest sense, and why? I wish to elaborate on three such elements and will start from religion.

First, we need to take a step back and look at the relationship between religion and well-being, without investigating the role of sense of meaning. The relationship between religion and well-being is a complex one: religion has both benefits and costs for individual as well as societal well-being. Still, the majority of the literature indicates that religion and spirituality increase one’s well-being. Religion influences well-being even after controlling for variables such as education, age, and occupation (Argyle 2001, 164; Witter et al. 1985). Religiosity also affects more health-related items, such as positive emotions, fear of death, stress, and mental health (Argyle 2001, 169–77). Moreover, the connection is universal. Helliwell (2002, 2005), for example, has indicated that subjective well-being and religiosity share a strong connection in 57 countries. The conclusion arising from almost 150 academic studies (Spencer et al. 2016; see also Paloutzian and Kirkpatrick 1995; Ciarrocchi and Deneke 2005; Chamberlain and Zika 1988) is that the most obvious beneficial effects of religion on well-being come from group participation, such as volunteering.

However, most of these studies tend to focus on the individual subjective well-being and individual religiosity – a challenge I illustrated earlier. Religion – all religions and spirituality – can also promote societal well-being, via trust, human rights movements, and compassion, to name a few.

Whether it is religious participation, or group cohesion, or a belief in a higher power, or individual spirituality, or intensive praying that is linked to better well-being, why does religiosity boost well-being? What is the mechanism, the moon, mediating the light from religion to well-being? Far too little attention has been paid to the fact that it is very much the sense of meaning that reflects the light of religion on well-being. For instance, if we look at the most powerful enhancer well-being in religion – group participation – I argue it is not participation per se but the sense of meaning coming from and being strengthened by religious participation that boosts well-being.

Exploring religion as a search for meaning illustrates the fluidity of categories such as religion versus non-religion. For instance, in our recent research into the individual experiences and definitions of Finns (N=970, see Ranta,Pessi, and Grönlund 2016) – a clear example of meaningfulness – people have ideas, views, and senses of the sacred that are not religious in themselves, yet are self-transcendent in a rather traditional sense.I quote from our data (a middle-aged woman): “The sacred is illustrated in small everyday moments like in the warmth of a smile, or beauty of nature. Beauty that only a greater force is capable of.” Finns also experience the sacred in love, death, art, new life, benevolence, and so on (Ranta, Pessi and Grönlund 2016). These clearly are elements fostering meaning and well-being. This also emphasises the processed nature of religion and spirituality; meanings are made in the everyday. Sense of meaning – the feeling that one matters – is what takes us from day to day.

Studies illustrate that religiosity is an independent correlate of life meaning, and the link can be about struggle as well as growth. Personal goals, life meaning and religion are positively linked in various studies (see Emmons 2005; Chamberlain and Zika 1988). Very interestingly, it seems to be the search for meaning in particular, not its presence, that is linked to more internal, open and complex religiosity (see Martos, Thege and Steger 2010).

Indeed, religion not only offers meanings but it is a meaning system in itself (Silberman 2003, 2005); that is, a system on which all individuals operate in their everyday life. One central link between religion and meaning in life is precisely that religion offers a system that connects everyday experiences with the coherent whole (Baumeister 1991, 2002; Baumeister et al. 2013; Steger and Frazier 2005; Fletcher 2004). Religion as a system of meaning is not something only a religious fanatic has while we do not: people have multifaceted, fluid, very mixed meaning systems, and their constellation of meanings changes over time and through situations. Contrary to general belief, life seems to appear more meaningful when religiosity is complex and open.

Earlier I noted that we have left the perspective of meaningfulness too much to psychologists and a sociological touch is needed. Now I want to emphasize the need for religious expertise in today’s empirical studies of meaningfulness and systems of meaning. This is very much needed as religion is not just one system of meaning among others. It has various unique elements as it centers on what is perceived to be sacred; as a system of meaning it is exceptionally powerful, shared, multi-faceted, integrative, even all-encompassing, and also broad in timeframe. As a system of meaning, religion can lend significance to objects, cultural products, time and space, any specific situation, particularly hardships (see Silberman 2003, 2005). Today, the experience of meaning in life is higher in poor than in wealthy nations, and it is particularly high in nations – poorer or richer – of higher religiosity. Hardships and lack of well-being promote meaning-making but religion promotes meaning-making even more. Richer countries and richer – and particularly – healthier individuals, have higher life satisfaction but not higher meaning (Oishi and Diener 2013). Religion as a system of meaning functions, and is actually enhanced, when the well-being of individuals, groups, and societies is most endangered and called for.

The Role of Belonging in Fostering Well-Being

We have just explored religion that promotes sense of meaning and thus fosters well-being. I will now turn to the two other central elements that promote well-being through sense of meaning: belonging and benevolence.

Starting with the former, it is very easy to think that having close social networks with “meaningful others” boosts the sense of meaning, and thus well-being (see Seppälä, Rossomondo and Doty 2013, 425). Several studies (Stillman et al. 2009; Baumeister and Leary 1995; Krause 2007) indeed illustrate that social exclusion leads to the perception of life as less meaningful. A solid body of literature indicates that the human drive for social relationships illustrates this innate tendency, crucial for survival (Ainsworth 1989; Buss 1990; Baumeister and Leary 1995; Baumeister 2005; Lambert et al. 2013), and Baumeister and Leary (2005) call this drive the “need to belong.” People strongly experience this human drive and are able to pinpoint it: the most frequent response to the question of what constitutes meaning in life is social relationships (DeVogler-Ebersole and Ebersole 1985; Ebersole 1998; Little 1998). In empirical laboratory studies too, for instance, thinking about family relationships promotes higher levels of meaning, relative to control groups (Lambert et al. 2010).

This need to belong, the need for positive social ties, is a biological need that is physically structured in us. It is a fundamental part of the well-being of our psyche (Baumeister 2005) and of our body. There are numerous physical and mental health consequences if one fails to form social bonds (Baumeister and Leary 1995; Ainsworth 1989; Zika and Chamberlain 1992). For instance, individuals who are socially rejected enter a state of cognitive deconstruction and, thus, a decrease in meaningful thought (e.g. Twenge, Catanese and Baumeister 2003). Similarly, the experience of loneliness is linked to reduction of meaning (e.g. Stillman et al. 2009).

However, the need to belong, or belonging in itself, is not the actual story here. Let me illustrate this with reference to an experimental study by Lambert and colleagues (2013). Imagine I divided a group of students into three groups. The first group was asked to think of two people or groups with whom they feel that they really belong. The second group was asked to think of two people who have recently given them help. And the third group was asked to think of two people who have recently given them a compliment. Then they were posed the question, “How much meaning do you feel in your life at this very moment?” on a scale 1–15, with the higher number indicating greater meaning. If the study by Lambert et al is (2013) is correct, the first group – the group primed with the thought of sense of belonging – would rate, in that particular moment, their lives more meaningful than the rest of the students in the room.

What this small student experiment demonstrates is that meaningfulness comes particularly from a sense of belonging, not from belonging itself. Earlier we saw that hardships enhance sense of meaning, but that social exclusion is a particular hardship: it promotes meaninglessness. Certainly, sense of belonging is also what religious participation gives to many people – that is why it boosts well-being so strongly. We can ask: are the religious communities that we study able to give people sense of belonging and a meaningful entity that transcends their own selves?

Possessing a feeling of belonging to a group, and actually being part of a group, both enhance a sense of meaning. But what is really at work here? What is it about being a member of or feeling part of a group that promotes meaningfulness? There are several intriguing angles pondered in previous literature. Some scholars (e.g. Aron, Aron and Norman 2001) propose that close ties, allowing individuals to feel part of a larger actual and symbolic entity that transcends their own selves and bodies, is the key. Such self-transcendence, of course, is at the very core of all religions. Furthermore, feeling of belonging provides stability, promotes social identity and allows people to aim and reach goals of a higher order (see Haslam et al. 2009; Lambert et al. 2013) – again elements central to religions and religiosity, as well as to spirituality.

It has also been suggested that social ties, and in particular group membership, provide shelter from uncertainty and contribute order in the midst of a bewildering world (Hogg 2005). Self-esteem and social value – elements activated and promoted by social ties – anticipate sense of meaning (Baumeister 1991; Steger and Frazier 2005). Others, on the one hand, suggest that close social relationships offer the symbolic promise of immortality through continuity (see Lifton 1979) and through biological procreation (see Mikulincer, Florian and Hirschberger 2004). Again, further interdisciplinary research is most certainly called for: all these elements, for a sociologist of religion, come much closer to our core topics than that which is currently illustrated by research on meaningfulness and wellbeing.

Well-Being from Benevolence – Boosted by Religion

The third essential source of meaningfulness – besides religion and sense of belonging – concerns benevolence and compassion. Our well-being is promoted by people and institutions that help us if we are in need. However, a much more fundamental element in sense of meaning is helping and giving to others. Sense of meaning, and thus well-being, crucially arises from the experience that one is valuable to the community one is part of. Compassion towards a colleague will increase one’s dopamine levels and stimulate one’s vagus nerve that controls the inflammation levels of the body and lowers the heart rate – and it even increases expected lifespan (see Harris and Thoresen 2005; Waugh and Fredrickson 2005; Thoresen et al. 2004).

Compassion is indeed biologically built into us. For instance, there are studies indicating that giving money to your choice of charity will increase activity in the pleasure area of your brain more than eating chocolate (see Oppenheimer and Olivola 2010). Societies, well-being and welfare policies should be designed cultivating this true nature of ours, not the utilitarian view of humans. The stronger role of institutions that harness people’s natural longing to be compassionate, and to find meaning in it, is called for in media too (Brooks 2016); this is a distinct asset of religious and spiritual institutions and agents. What stand and role will religious institutions and agents take in this regard in the future?

Religion is never neutral in terms of benevolence and care; indeed their relationship is more complex, but the fact is that most religions do promote and aim at fostering care and love (see Pessi 2008). Religious institutions, the promotion of the value of compassion, and encouraging individual acts of benevolence, teach a truly valuable well-being asset. Religious individuals are indeed more altruistic even if that only concerns the circles outside of family and friends (see Pessi 2011). In our era of relativism it is interesting that people, including non-religious individuals, seem to demand altruism from religious individuals, using concepts like “duty,” “prerequisite,” “requirement” (Pessi 2013, 2008). A chain reaction is clear even if surprisingly seldom explicated: religion promotes well-being because it boosts compassion, which in turn boosts sense of meaning, which then boosts wellbeing.

This concerns not just individuals; compassion also has intensive organizational wellbeing benefits, particularly through sense of meaning. My research group (research project CoPassion) is currently exploring the power of compassion at work places. The CoPassion research team conducted, for instance, a six-week, 18 hour-long emotions skills and compassion training, creating awareness of negative and positive emotions, and measured the impact of the training on well-being and meaningfulness at work, amongst others. Our preliminary findings indicate that compassionate motivation increased, to a statistically significant degree, with those managers who participated in our compassion and emotion skills trainings, compared to a control group. Compassionate motivation was measured in our research setting with items such as, “One of the activities that provide me with the most meaning in my life is helping others.” That is, our compassion training seem to have increased the sense of meaning managers gain from helping others. Practising compassion at work has been shown to enhance enthusiasm, trust, a more humane work culture, well-being at work and the experience of balance between work and private life (see Seppälä, Rossomando and Doty 2013; Kanov et al. 2004; Hakanen and von Dierendonck 2011). Meaning at work is a dramatic power for well-being – and it can be boosted.

This power not only concerns organizations but societal well-being too: people helping others promotes societal trust. People are more likely to help people they trust. The positive cycle spreads.

Well-Being – Reflection of and on Sociology

To return to the intersection this article started with – the two grand narratives of our times, search for meaning and well-being – and building on its overall narrative, I will conclude with three questions for deliberation by sociologists of religion. I will not offer concluding answers, but hope they will inspire readers.

First, do we – as sociology traditionally has – want to focus more on “ill-being” than on well-being? Alternatively, should we focus on possibilities rather than on social problems and, as Neil Thin, social anthropologist from the University of Edinburgh, has beautifully expressed it, “to cheer up sociology” (see Thin 2014a, 2014b, 2015).

Second, might critical perspectives be narrowing our analysis of well-being? For instance, when self-help literature is analysed through the lens of critical sociology as a form of the power of the market, people are viewed as victims of such powers. If, however, we approach the genre and reader experiences more openly, we will understand individuals and their well-being better, while remaining able to analyse societal elements such as consumerism in the self-help genre.

Third, do we fear normativity? Here I do not mean religious confessional normativity, but the illusion of neutrality in sociology? From the starting point of our research explorations we choose which topics we consider more valuable than others: that is a normative choice. Are we ready not only to analyse the world, but also to contribute to building a better world? It is common in sociology to include normative perspectives in the analysis of societal well-being; cohesion and solidarity are preferred to anomie. Concerning the subjective experiences of well-being, sociologists tend to use concepts such as cultural narratives and socialization. These are important angles – but everything is not relativistic and cultural. Everything is not examples of social constructions. For instance, a teenage asylum seeker longing for his mum cannot be reduced to an example of the gender-biased culture of women’s care labour. People do experience well-being – and lack of it. This is not just cultural reflection or social constructions. I believe that the perspective of applied sociology is insufficient; what is needed is value-explicated perspectives (i.e. more normative approaches) in both conceptual-theoretical and applied research.

Sociologists of religion and theologians with sociological orientations have already explored extensively the themes that link to and promote societal and individual well-being – and more than that which is customary in sociology. We must not give in to the potential criticism that such work would somehow be less analytical.

Even if I do have my hesitations on the concept of well-being, as reviewed in this article, it is a deeply fruitful concept for research and teaching. Research by many – if not most – sociologists and scholars of sociology is closely related to well-being of individuals, groups, societies – whether we use the concept or not. I believe all of us can make use of the concept of well-being as kind of a reflective tool of our understanding of social sciences and of human action, as hopefully captured and illustrated by the three questions at the beginning of this section.

To draw these threads together, we should not just settle with the notion that religion is linked to higher well-being. Religion promotes the sense of meaning both directly and through benevolence and belonging – and thus well-being. As sociologists of religion we are able to bridge the subjective and objective approaches of well-being, and upgrade them both: the subjective with the social, and the objective with the human touch and human themes. Sense of meaning is one such bridge, and there we have a lot to offer. Further work in the sociology of meaning is indeed needed. As experts in religion we can understand meanings in unique depth, particularly as we, together, represent such a variety of disciplines.

All in all, meaningfulness captures the core of well-being but also illustrates a wider phenomenon: in the heart of so many people’s search for a sense of meaning is – what I wish to call – “Power of Love.” It captures both belonging and benevolence. If religious institutions and forms of spirituality manage to touch upon this power, they will be more likely to survive, and even to flourish.


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1This article is based on a keynote speech presented at the Nordic Conference of Sociology of Religion in August 2016, in Helsinki, Finland.
2“Welfare” and “wellness” are often used as synonyms of well-being; I have only used “well-being” in this text.
3For both perspectives of well-being in various reviews, see Dodge et al. 2012; Veenhoven 2008; Waterman 1993.
4For example: “Social capital, for example, trust and membership in organizations, is declining in the United States.” Twenge (2002) concluded that rising dysphoria in the United States is in part due to the breakdown of social connectedness. Diener and Seligman (2004, 7) also use the concept of societal well-being.
5Actually, there are recent reports, e.g. Quality of life in European Union (Eurostat 2016), that mix the indicators beautifully, yet do not really offer analysis.
6Eckersley (2000a, 2000b, 2014) and others have also criticised subjective well-being: growth in national wealth is not correlated with increase in subjective well-being. Also, life satisfaction is not just an average of domain satisfaction: domains differ in their relative importance for life satisfaction. Domains can be balanced by different domains. All in all, universal comparisons are very hard to gain.
7For instance, as Veenhoven (2008) illustrates: happy people are better citizens; better informed about political and societal matters, and they also use their voting rights more. Also, they are less radical in their political views. See also Seppälä, Rossomando and Doty 2013.
8Furthermore, Social Progress Index (Social Progress Imperative 2016) is one example of more developed, recent measurements.
9For reviews, see Steger 2012 and Lambert et al. 2013.
10Diener and Ryan, in particular (see Diener and Ryan 2010), make this connection, and then they further separate hedonic and eudaimonic happiness; part of the latter is sense of meaning and purpose. That is, sense of meaning can also be seen as a part of happiness (for them, subjective well-being).
11If we take markets as our example: yes, people do enjoy consuming, but most prefer to take ethics into account in their choices; people are looking for, and ready to pay more, for deeper, thicker value. Also, companies that promote social value and have clear purpose motivate their employees better, and better capture the attention of potential customers. See Haque 2011.

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