The following is an abridgment of Dr. Glenn Schiraldi’s presentation given on September 9, 2021, as part of the College of Life Sciences Faith and Science seminar series.
I am so delighted to return to this university that helped .a tentative, but eternally grateful, new convert get his spiritual feet on the ground and to be with people whose light reflects God’s love and testifies of the Savior even before you speak.
Around the turn of the century, I traveled the country over a five-year period to interview resilient World War II combat survivors to learn how they coped. To be in the study, survivors had to have returned from war well adjusted, happily married, and lived fruitful lives. They were eighty years of age when I interviewed them. They included prisoners of war, a Navajo code talker, Tuskegee Airmen, amputees, and combatants from nearly all theaters of the war. All but one of the forty-one interviewees were people of faith. They spoke of belief in a loving God who gave them comfort and strength. They were also a highly moral group. They spoke of chaste courtships and fidelity in marriage.
I became intrigued with the link between stress, health, and happiness, with the latter’s close connection to spirituality. It seems, as I tried to put happiness together with stress and trauma, there was a two-step pathway to happiness, a process that applies to all of us:
1. Heal the inner wounds that make and keep us miserable. For all suffering, Jesus and his Atonement are the solution, sometimes with the aid of support people, like skilled mental health professionals and wonderful new treatment strategies.
For example, one of the honors of my life was interviewing Louis Zamperini, a wonderful man. You might recognize his name if you saw the movie or read the book Unbroken [by Laura Hillenbrand]. In WWII, his bomber went down in the Pacific. He survived forty-seven days on a life raft through sheer grit. After his raft drifted to a Japanese-held island, he was tortured and threatened with beheading every day. The movie made it seem like he made it home and all was well. It wasn’t. He was angry and getting into fights, drinking, squandering his savings, and his marriage was on the rocks. His wife pleaded with him to attend Billy Graham’s first revival in a tent in Los Angeles. He went, but bolted, saying, “I already know I’m a sinner. I don’t need someone else telling me I am.” She prayed him back the next night. He was again bolting from the tent, when he heard Billy Graham say:
“There are problems that will never be solved unless we bring them to the Lord Jesus Christ and turn our lives over to Him. There are marital problems, physical and financial problems, problems with sin and habit. When people are in serious trouble, they almost always turn to prayer.”
And Louis thought, “I’m in trouble. I haven’t prayed since I was a prisoner.” He walked back and committed his life to the Savior. That night, he said, he threw out his alcohol, tobacco, and distasteful magazines and didn’t have a nightmare for the first time in five years, and never had another thereafter.
2. Once unstuck from emotional and spiritual misery, we are freed to progress to the happiness we are created for, by following Him who called himself The Way, and learning the process and practicing the skills of happiness.
At the University of Maryland, we piloted skills-based resilience courses, combining skills from traditional psychology (which brings us from negative to neutral) with positive psychology (which brings us from neutral to positive, using skills consistent with age old spiritual practices). We found that practicing such skills led to improvements in all the indicators we measured: happiness, resilience, self-esteem, optimism, curiosity, depression, anxiety, and anger. It was very good news to find that such indicators could change in a semester’s time.
If religious faith is beneficial, and I’m suggesting it is, then we’d expect the data to show it. Harold Koenig, a psychiatrist at Duke University, is the foremost religious researcher. He found that the majority of thousands of studies show that religiously committed people on average experience:
Koenig concluded that religion is not a panacea. As believers, we still have challenges and suffer. But religion and spirituality provide resources that are strongly associated with greater well-being and better coping. I’d like to take a closer look at some of the deeper themes encouraged by religion that often are not discussed in the literature.
In studying resilient survivors of trauma, depression, anxiety, suicide, and addictions, I’ve concluded that love is at the very core of resilience. Marty Seligman, the father of positive psychology, wrote: “The capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being [happiness] at age eighty.” This was exactly what I determined after interviewing my WWII octogenarians.
You can stop a self-destructive behavior, but if you don’t heal the broken heart, pain resurfaces and usually leads to relapse. But faith gives us sublime truths that can constantly nourish and speak peace to our souls. One such truth is that God loves us with a love that never changes. Elder Holland testified that “no one of us is less treasured or cherished of God than another. . . . He cheers on every runner.”
I love that our faith teaches us to be patient with imperfection—our own and that of others. As long as we are baptized, repenting, and trying our best, we will become joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). For me, that took the weight off my shoulders, and I no longer feel the frenzied race to fix everything immediately and on my own.
G. E. Kawika Allen, a BYU researcher, and his colleague found that just over 75 percent of LDS adults are perfectionists, meaning having high standards. For most, high standards were positive and associated with higher life satisfaction, self-esteem, and religious commitment, as well as lower depression and anxiety. However, a minority of the perfectionists with high standards fared less well comparatively. This group was motivated by fear, not love and security. They feared disappointing family and God, never being good enough no matter how hard they try, and failing to measure up to expectations, making them feel less worthwhile. The researchers concluded that high standards are good as long as they are upheld with kindness towards imperfections and with no harsh judgments.
Connection to high standards is another area researchers have begun to explore—how character and inner peace are protective against stress. Interestingly, Dutch research recently found that self-worth strongly and inversely correlates with post-traumatic stress symptoms. Self-worth was operationalized as the individual’s assumption that one is good, decent, and unashamed of their personal character. And when we stumble morally, faith gives an answer that allows us to rise again, including forgiveness.