‘Friending’ God can restore purpose in life for lonely or anti-social people

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If meeting new people or socializing with others doesn’t come naturally to you, having a little faith may fill the void, a new study finds.

Research by the University of Michigan found that people who lack friends and social circles look for God as a way to satisfy those needs. Religious people have a stronger sense of belonging and purpose, even if they struggle to find footing in social settings.

Conversely, the authors say, when people don’t feel like they belong in a group or feel unsupported in their relationships, they’re more likely to lack direction or struggle to see meaning in life. Turning to faith and “friending” a divine being can help replace some of the functions of human relationships, they found.

“For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide,” explains lead author Todd Chan in a university release.

Chan and his team analyzed the responses of 19,775 people across three nationally representative surveys related to religion. Participants were asked to describe their purpose in life, their levels of loneliness, the quality of their friendships, and their religious beliefs. The responses showed that viewing God as a friend can help people feel more connected and bring about greater levels of purpose — but primarily among individuals who don’t have much connection with others.

“In other words, people mostly benefit from leveraging religion and turning to God as a friend only when they lack supportive social connections,” says Chan.

People who already had strong social circles instead showed little to no benefit when it came to making their lives feel more purposeful.

Previous research concluded that people who struggle socially often humanize pets or are more likely to believe in God or even imaginary beings. Still, the authors say that this latest research shouldn’t compel introverts to avoid human interaction altogether.

“These results certainly do not suggest that people can or should rely on God over people for purpose,” adds co-author Oscar Ybarra, a professor of psychology and faculty associate at the university’s Institute for Social Research. “Quality human connections still remain a primary and enduring source of purpose in life.”

The full study was published August 5, 2018 in the Journal of Psychology.

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