Can God really heal?
That’s the question a recent study posed to people suffering from chronic pain.
In the study, published in the journal Pain Medicine, a group of European researchers examined how perceptions of God might be related to the happiness levels of people suffering from chronic pain.
The researchers asked 136 patients who’d been in pain for at least six months about their levels of pain and happiness, the images they associate with God, and the way they interpret their disease. More than half of the participants were Christian, but 22 percent were religious believers without any affiliation, 14 percent were atheists, and four percent were agnostics. Eleven percent of them attended church weekly, but 36 percent said they never attended church.
The results showed that people in pain who held more positive images of God—those associated with kindness, love, and warmth—reported higher levels of happiness than people who held negative images of God.
Upon further analysis of their results, the researchers found that even more important than feelings about or belief in God per se, the key for patients’ happiness was how they felt about their illness. When the researchers asked the patients about how they perceived their illness—for instance, how much they agreed with the statement, “my illness encourages me to get to know myself better”—patients who held positive images of God were better able to see their pain and illness in positive terms. Those who had negative associations with God weren’t able to re-interpret their pain in this way.
The authors argue that these positive images of God gave participants a way to cope with their pain, since it brought them comfort and more hope for recovery, thereby boosting their happiness.
The authors do acknowledge that more research, following people over a longer period of time, needs to be done to determine whether happy people simply hold more positive images of God and are better able to see their illness in positive terms. But they also stress that one doesn’t necessarily need to look to God for this type of comfort. They point to other research that has found that different forms of social support can increase people’s happiness and help them deal with stress. In this study, they argue that God may serve as a positive “attachment figure” that the participants associated with kindness and love, but other research shows that parents and spouses, for instance, can serve a similar function.