Everything Is Awful. This One Weird Trick Can Fix It.

Everything Is Awful. This One Weird Trick Can Fix It.

Author: Marvin Lindsay
January 15, 2023

While economists and consumers are worried about inflation, historian and writer Anton S. Cebalo is calling our attention to a “social recession” in the United States. Just about every marker of wellbeing is down. Life expectancy has dropped to 1996 levels. “Diseases of despair” such as substance abuse or suicidal thoughts are up. Trust in social institutions is at a 50-year low.
Why? It’s not just the pandemic. At the turn of the century, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone called attention to a decline in social engagement among Americans. The illustration that gave rise to the book title was bowling habits. In 2000 more Americans were bowling than ever before, but bowling leagues were collapsing. Since then, we have become a fully online society. The average American spends seven hours online per day. Increased time spent scrolling social media sites has correlated with a decrease in close friendships and postponement of “adulting” behaviors like moving out and getting a job among young adults. Finally, there was the pandemic which crippled social interactions for a prolonged period.
Cebalo’s proposed solution to these worrisome trends is a “pro-social internet,” where online entities restructure their platforms to foster, not fray, community ties. But here is another solution. In 2016, a Harvard research team led by Tyler VanderWeele identified a miracle drug for optimizing physical and mental health. This elixir, taken once a week, can reduce the likelihood of mortality by 20%-30% over a 15 year period. What is it?
Going to church.
More accurately, participating in religious communities. People who attend worship services exhibit lower rates of depression, are less likely to take their own lives, and are more optimistic than non-worshippers. Faith communities’ social support and behavioral norms encourage healthy steps like quitting smoking. Churchgoers tend to be more engaged in civic interests than non-churchgoers. 
I met my wife at church, and while your results may vary, I have to say that Professor VanderWeele’s research tracks with my experience! I do wonder what to do with this information, however. “Religion is good for you” is a less biblical pitch than, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “Religion is good for you” pertains to this life, which God created and is of immeasurable value, but it has no bearing on the next life, which God has also created.
On the other hand, people are hurting badly right now, and I do believe that the Good News and Christian community can contribute to their healing. The dilemma is this: church goers are often poorly equipped to dispense this healing elixir, and it often does not occur to lonely and hurting people to seek friendship, hope, and community in a congregation. So how do we get past that?
It does begin with us. In the gospels, Jesus began his ministry by calling disciples around him, and wherever he went, if he encountered a sick person, he healed them. Word got out, and before you know it, Jesus was having to hide from all the people who were seeking him out.
Who have you lost touch with lately? Reach out to them this week, especially if they aren’t in a faith community. Maybe they’re fine, but maybe they need a friend. Will rekindling your friendship with them get them into church? Maybe, maybe not, but either way, none of us can have too many friends!


First Presbyterian Church


20 King's Highway East, Haddonfield, NJ 08033
(856) 429-1960