People who lack friends and purpose in life but who turn to God to fill those voids tend to do better than those who are lonely and non-spiritual, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality.
Feeling like one belongs is closely related to having a sense of purpose. For example, when people feel like they do not belong or are unsupported by their relationships, they consistently have a lower sense of purpose and direction in life, says lead author Todd Chan, a doctoral student in the department of psychology at the University of Michigan (U-M).
The researchers say that having a belief system that sufficiently “substitutes” for some of the aspects of human relationships — like having a God that values and supports them — may allow lonely people to restore some of this purpose.
“For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide,” Chan said.
In three different studies, the research team analyzed the responses of 19,775 people who had reported their purpose in life, levels of loneliness, the quality of their friendships and religious beliefs.
Religious beliefs tend to provide social comfort in many people; however, the findings show that seeing God as your friend when you are already socially connected actually provides minimal additional benefit for purpose in life.
“In other words, people mostly benefit from leveraging religion and turning to God as a friend only when they lack supportive social connections,” Chan said.
The study also shows how people can cope with disconnection when other people are unavailable or unappealing. For example, typically social people who feel lonely tend to “get out there” to make new friends, but this is not always feasible for people who tend to have poor relationships in general and/or are usually rejected.
“Our research suggests, given two people who feel equally disconnected, the individual who feels more connected to God will have a better sense of purpose in life,” said co-author Nicholas Michalak, a psychology graduate student.
But while the study suggests that religion and God can compensate for lost purpose in the socially disconnected, they did not restore purpose to a level comparable to that of people who are socially connected.
“These results certainly do not suggest that people can or should rely on God over people for purpose,” said co-author Oscar Ybarra, professor of psychology and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “Quality human connections still remain a primary and enduring source of purpose in life.”
In addition, the findings do not suggest that people who are socially disconnected are more likely to become religious if they were not already.
Source: University of Michigan