Got Optimism? Studies Point to the Source

For many, the holidays are a time of greater joy and celebration. For others, however, it can be a time of sadness and remembering good times long past. Nevertheless, there is an attitude that we must fight for, called optimism, and a gift, called hope, that can brighten life for all of us during this season — and both are firmly rooted in our faith.

Optimism and hope only have meaning in the context of circumstances that threaten both. It is optimism that allows the person diagnosed with terminal cancer to believe that he will survive and beat the odds. It is hope that enables the person in chronic pain to believe that his life can still have meaning – it is the tiniest ray of light at the end of the tunnel that says something good can result from this. Optimism is probably less fact-based than hope is. Optimism denies the facts and sees possibilities by avoiding the facts, while hope recognizes and embraces those facts but still believes in the unseen good that lies ahead. Hope, like meaning and purpose, has its ultimate base on the belief that there exists a good God who is in control and will ultimately triumph no matter what the current circumstances look like. Our hope in eternal life and the ultimate triumph of good over evil lies entirely on the belief that Jesus really lived, really died, and really rose from the grave. We accept the actual fact of death, but have hope in the life to come. That’s a lot more than just being optimistic.

Religious involvement, however, gives us both optimism (seeing the best in a situation) and hope (seeking what is beyond both the best and the worst). Once again, scientific research confirms this line of thinking. In our systematic review of the research (Handbook of Religion and Health, Section Edition, 2012), we identified 32 quantitative studies on religiosity and optimism that were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Of those studies, 26 (81 percent) reported greater optimism among those who were more religious.  For example, University of Pennsylvania researchers Sheena Sethi and soon-to-be president of the American Psychological Association, Martin E. P. Seligman, studied 623 members of nine major religious denominations in the United States. They were interested in determining levels of optimism across a range of religious orientations from liberal groups (Unitarians and Reformed Jews, where belief in God is not necessary) to moderates (conservative Jews, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists) to fundamentalists (Orthodox Jews, Southern Baptists, Charismatics, Muslims). I suspect that the researchers anticipated that those from liberal faith traditions would be more optimistic, especially when compared to the doom-and-gloom conservatives and rigid fundamentalists.

What they found was a large and significant difference between these religious groups in optimism, but in the exact opposite direction expected. Fundamentalists were much more optimistic than liberals, with moderates lying in between. Greater optimism was observed for both positive and negative life events. Greater religious influence in daily life and greater religious hope helped to explain the higher levels of optimism among the fundamentalists. Digging deeper into the possible causes for greater optimism, investigators examined the religious materials that the members of the different religious groups read and heard. They tape-recorded sermons and analyzed the content of these and other liturgical material from each religious group. The results indicated that the religious materials read and heard by the fundamentalists was much more optimistic than the religious materials of the other groups, especially the liberals. When researchers analyzed their data further, they found that the positive religious materials read and heard, the greater religious involvement, greater influence of religion on daily life, and greater religious hope of the fundamentalists — these together completely explained the differences in optimism between fundamentalists and other groups. These are not the only researchers to report such findings. Scientists studying different populations from persons with medical illness to members of minority groups have reported similar results, linking religious activities such as prayer with greater optimism.

What about hope? Is religious involvement also related to greater hope, as we would expect given that hope is more solidly based on religious faith than optimism might be? Sethi and Seligman also reported that the religiously devout were more hopeful (religious hope), as have other investigators studying religious involvement and hope in a variety of clinical and non-clinical settings. This is especially true for when studying people with terminal illnesses, older adults, trauma survivors, and those with mental illness. Based on our systematic review of research presented in the Handbook, 29 of 40 scientific studies (73 percent) reported positive relationships between greater religious involvement and hope, and the rest found no association. Lack of an association, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that religiousness was unrelated to hope, but only that the particular study design was unable to detect such an effect. In other words, a poorly designed and executed quantitative research study is unlikely to find a relationship simply because it was not done well. Many qualitative research reports involving interviews with people in difficult life situations find that — everything else being equal — degree of religious belief is tightly linked with a person’s hope.

Our religious faith does indeed provide us with the ultimate hope, the hope that no matter what we experience in this life — whether good or bad — that our experiences in the next life will be indescribably, incomprehensively better. It will be a time of joy and reunion with loved ones and our Creator unlike anything we have had or can imagine here on earth. This is the kind of hope that enables religious people to survive the most horrific of life events and circumstances, and enables them to approach the end of their lives with peace and confidence. It is a peace and confidence grounded on promises that come from the highest authority and most reliable source, far greater than medicine or science.

Harold G. Koenig, MD


Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

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