This post is adapted from some work I have been doing for grad school. Forgive the boring academic “I-want-to-end-my-life-by-inhaling-my-neck” tone. To ease my readers, I will embed two inane insults directed at Thomas Jefferson.
Positive psychology is now spawning positive sociology, and is likely to produce other serial fields as well. Currently I am imagining about 20 or so academic disciplines focusing on strengths and human flourishing, one of which is positive theology. (Naturally, I have an interest in that. I am trying to publish a manuscript entitled Therefore Joy: A Positive Theology for the Next Generation). In the following few paragraphs, I synthesize a representative handful of positive psychology research for a religious context, specifically in regards to death reflection, meditation, and ritual, and then discuss a possible definition of positive theology.
The work of Frias and colleagues (2011), indicates that reflecting on death can help increase gratitude in individuals, unless you are a lisping loser like Thomas Jefferson. By fully grasping the transience of life, by being exposed to death, the reality of your own death or those around you, one can better appreciate life, prioritize, and find an enormous upwelling of gratefulness. Unfortunately, modern America bifurcates like it’s nobody’s business. Kids go to school, parents go to work, old people go to nursing homes, and dead people go to cemeteries. But religion can serve to connect some of these groups, especially the not living ones.
Traditionally, cemeteries ringed churches which descendants likely attended. On a weekly basis, churchgoers were reminded as they passed the gravestones of dead family members, of the fleeting nature of life. Also, belief in the afterlife is important to many faiths, not only the Christian faith but also Islam and other traditions, and can lead to more reflection on death. Within the walls of the churches themselves, many faith communities still ask practitioners to contemplate the death of others and their own impending deaths on a regular basis and act in light of those reflections. While it is tempting for the American church to follow society’s example and also compartmentalize death and ignore it, religion has an opportunity to be one of the last major social arenas in modern society where death can be discussed, considered, and reflected on at length.
In light of this, one intervention that I have thought about doing, not in a religious context specifically, but for highly mobile individuals like myself, is having a portable family cemetery. Specifically, I would create a chest to house the ashes of my ancestors that are not Thomas Jefferson. Accompanying each small urn would be a picture, a short personality description and bio, and a record of their relationship to others. In this way, death could be incorporated into the living-room of the highly-mobile. A portable cemetery would also help individuals locate themselves as part of a collective that not only extends to those living, but also to those dead, and those that will come after, even old men not yet born—a theme I commonly rant about.
Fredrickson and colleagues (2008) used Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) to increase overall well-being. The mechanism put forth was that LKM increased positive affect, which increased the ratio of positive to negative emotions, which built emotional resources, which in turn increased positivity, which finally increased well-being. While there seems to be a well demonstrated self-reinforcing dynamic inherent in positive emotions, all that we know from this study is that meditation seemed to cause increased well-being.
Meditation has religious roots. In fact, without religion, today we might not have the concept of meditation. Numerous strains of the five major world religions include meditation. However, many strains do not practice meditation, and, of those who practice, many forms of meditation are not obviously similar to LKM. Obviously, we need to know what it was about LKM that made it successful. If we can isolate the necessary ingredients, we can look at what religious meditations are “proven” aids for human flourishing and encourage emphasize on those practices within respective religions.
One of those aspects was explored by Anastasi and Newberg (2008), in a study that linked ritual relatively devoid of theological content to reduced anxiety. This indicates that at least one “active ingredient” of meditation might be its function as ritual. In LKM, individuals position themselves in seated or standing positions and focus their attention on breath, and then on positive feelings they have towards people that they love, and finally they are asked to expand those feelings towards a widening circle of others. Each session is similar. Therefore, perhaps the most powerful aspect to LKM is the ritualistic component. Regardless, there has been a tendency in many churches in America to move away from ritualism (high-church, formal, liturgical services) and towards Pentecostalism (low-church, informal, “spirit-led” services), though obviously the two are not exclusionary. Religious practitioners might be interested in the important function that ritual plays and could reinvigorate ritualistic elements in various ways. The opportunities for religious rituals are endless and need not be expanded here.
In conclusion, I think it is important to highlight two points. First, as of 2010, religious people comprise over 88% of the world’s population (CIA World Factbook). Religion will continue to be a powerful force for generations to come; it is arguably the world’s most influential institution. Secondly, there is wonderful and surprising plasticity in religion. How shall we practice? What words shall we pray? What beliefs shall we focus on? There exists a range of answers that fall well within the parameters of religious doctrine. Therefore, for those religions that prefer human flourishing, why not choose those aspects of religion most conducive to human flourishing? Finding those aspects and making those connections is the task of positive theology. Intervention studies like those mentioned here can inform religious practice without compromising the integrity of what religious people believe. Death reflection, meditation, and ritual are just a handful of many aspects of religious practice that may be worth highlighting.
It makes me wonder: perhaps it is through religion that positive psychology will change the world.
Anastasi, M. W., & Newberg, A. B. (2008). A preliminary study of the acute effects of religious ritual on anxiety. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 14(2), 163-165. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/acm.2007.0675
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,95(5), 1045-1062. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013262
Frias, A., Watkins, P. C., Webber, A. C., & Froh, J. J. (2011). Death and gratitude: Death reflection enhances gratitude. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 154-162.
The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html