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Does Worship Make You Happier?

Alexis Abernethy

Worship not only cultivates positive feelings, but it also reduces the presence of negative emotions.

Professor of Psychology, Fuller School of Psychology
March 9, 2014

Are questions of happiness or well-being relevant to corporate worship? Some would argue no: the focus of worship is to glorify God, not make humans happy.

While it’s true that glorifying God should be our focus, I wonder whether our degree of well-being influences how we engage in corporate worship, our experience of worship, and our degree of transformation in worship.

In 2008, I led a scientific study of worship, where seventy-four participants from diverse ethnic backgrounds and Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches described key transformational experiences in worship.1 The sermon was the most pivotal factor that contributed to transformation for most participants. In addition to cognitive and emotional changes, participants noted changes in how they related to their family members, friends, and their congregation.

We hypothesized that congregants would report positive emotion in response to selected worship experiences. This would include expressions of joy and happiness. And a central theory that informed our hypotheses was Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” Theory of Positive Emotion.2 She posits that positive emotional experiences expand people’s resources by broadening their awareness and encouraging new experiences and exploration. By contrast, negative emotions narrow our focus in order to respond to a potentially threatening situation. This focused response may be very adaptive in the face of life-threatening situations.

And our research findings provided support for our hypothesis that congregants would report more positive emotion in response to worship. One aspect of the Broaden and Build Theory—the “undoing hypothesis”—proposes that negative emotions may be undone by positive emotional experiences. This hypothesis was supported, as sadness was the most frequently expressed antecedent emotional state prior to a transformational worship experience.

These findings suggest that understanding the interplay between negative and positive emotion may help to illuminate how corporate worship experiences contribute to spiritual transformation. Specifically, while corporate worship may contribute to well-being by fostering positive emotion, it may also play a central role in helping people recover from negative emotions. Our participants’ descriptions suggest that this process is not simply an infusion of positive emotion, but a process where concerns and burdens are brought to worship. A process of reorientation occurs, where these concerns are placed in a broadened biblical perspective. The person experiences a shift, so that they are not solely influenced by negative emotions, but also have a sense of God meeting them in their struggle. They leave with a broadened perspective and a more positive outlook that may include attitudinal and behavioral change. These findings underscore the importance of providing space for not only positive expressions of joy and adoration in worship, but also spiritual struggle. Both of these experiences contribute to our spiritual formation and well-being.