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Optimism, Spirituality and Religion

by Victor Perton

There is a strong connection between religious faith, belief and optimism.  The Dalai Lama for instance is a promoter of optimistic thinking and says “Choose optimism. It feels better."

Research shows that religious beliefs and practices are related to greater optimism, higher life satisfaction, happiness, hope, purpose and lower levels  of anxiety  and  depression.

Harvard Professor David Rosmarin and Director of the McLean Hospital Spirituality & Mental Health Program, recently wrote, “Across the gamut of religious traditions, spirituality can engender the perspective that things happen for some reason and serve a greater purpose. This, in turn, deploys our attention toward the potential for a brighter future, which can create a sense of optimism even when one’s situation seems dire."

Those who regularly attend religious services are more likely to have an optimistic outlook and a lesser inclination to have depression compared to those who do not attend services at all. 

The rituals of services and mass can be calming.  Religious observance can be joyful: Singing spiritual songs brings joy and a more positive outlook.

Attendance often involves meaningful social interactions like the Christian offering of peace during mass or communion service or conversations after the service.

This is not to say all religious practice lifts optimism: I have sat through some pretty ordinary sermons seemingly designed to make us feel guilty and sad. 

There are some strands of mainstream religion which are dismissive of optimism maintaining faith and hope are more important.  There are some who reject optimism in favour of hope. I don't believe you have to make that choice - the spiritual life and faith enhance optimism.

My friend Janine Kirk has some good advice for leaders in general and religious leaders in particular, “Without faith we have nothing, without hope there is nothing and without love we are nothing.  Optimistic leaders create the conditions where faith, hope and love can thrive."

In one of his sermons "Why I am an optimist", the American evangelist Billy Graham quoted St Peter "We, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness."

Billy Graham went on to say "I am an optimist not because I blindly hope - all evidence to the contrary - that somehow everything will work out all right. Nor am I an optimist because I believe in man's unlimited ability to solve his problems. I am an optimist ultimately because I believe in God."

Referring to the same passages, Australian Salvation Army Leaders Floyd and Tracy Tidd said Paul reminded the believers in Ephesus that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is the power available to us who believe. It is a power that enables us to: Live a life of joy, victory, poise, buoyancy and optimism.

The Dalai Lama said, “Optimism does not mean being blind to the actual reality of a situation. It means maintaining a positive spirit to continue to seek a solution to any given problem. And it means recognizing that any given situation has many different aspects—positive as well as problematic.”

The Brahma Kumari leader Sister Jayanti told me,  “Just as nature goes through its cycles, and day will definitely follow the darkest night, although there are many things that feel very dark at the moment, there is a conviction that light will not only penetrate the darkness but banish it - so that the day will begin. Legends and myths of every civilisation have remembered that the power of good ultimately conquers evil. This is the optimism with which I hold a vision for a better world.”

Experiment: If you have a  belief in God and haven’t been to a service for a while, attend a service or mass in a nearby church, temple, mosque or centre.  If the services includes spoken prayers and singing, join in.  If it doesn’t lift you, perhaps try another centre or ask the celebrant whether they have services which are more uplifting.

Experiment for religious leaders and celebrants:  Deliver a sermon advocating optimism, faith and hope.

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