Often society can agree on a problem without agreeing on a solution. In recent times, many people across all age groups have been felt to be suffering from anxiety due to a range of causes, and mental health is a great social and political concern.
Although we might hesitate to apply blame too specifically, especially if it would make us seem too conservative or old-fashioned, there is often a general shared diagnosis that some of the forces which used to help keep society calm and healthy – family, employment, religion, community – no longer, rightly or wrongly, are able to do so in the same way.
Carol Craig, in a post from her Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, encourages a move away from materialism and towards spirituality as one step which would reduce anxiety in modern life.
Interest in conventional religion has dropped significantly in the UK in recent decades, so it is striking that often we try to hold on to elements of spiritual and religious life even as we re-characterise ourselves as secular. One of these elements which has come into vogue is mindfulness, being aware of yourself and your thoughts and feelings with a view to striving to develop senses of calmness, gratitude, pleasure and kindness.
Some educationalists have gone so far as recommend the practice of mindfulness in schools as they feel that the decline in Christian or other religious assemblies has made pupils less aware of the importance of reflection and spirituality.
Although media reports usually mention the Buddhist origins of mindfulness, it bears similarities also to Christian prayer. Those of us who are Christians know we should pray to God to thank him for the physical and spiritual benefits he has already given us just as often as to seek help and support for the future. I was struck to read a Christian minister and academic, Dr Ian Bradley, recently make this point explicitly.
“Mindfulness is a profoundly Christian thing”, he said, so “the Church…should be encouraged to get more involved in pilgrimage, spiritual adventures that focus on mindfulness and meditation.”
Moving a little from the personal to the public space, Carol Craig suggests another valuable way to improve well-being is to look away from yourself and your immediate feelings and problems. Instead, take part in community activities, or in the work of organisations which share your views and values – a church, trade union, charity or political party.
Mindfulness was among many ideas covered in Swapping Psalms for Pop Songs, a rather non-pithy title for a recent BBC Radio 4 programme on the Sunday Assembly. This organisation, which launched itself as “the atheist church” which celebrates life and helps others, identifies itself specifically with community and social co-operation. Its various local branches have allied themselves with food banks, health groups and housing associations.
Ministers from different Christian denominations were both supportive and critical of the Sunday Assembly and presenter Mark Vernon suggested that this might mean that the organisation was “refreshing” a modern concept of spirituality. In the programme, academic Linda Woodhead emphasised that many people nowadays who see themselves as non-religious are not atheist. In the past, church congregations regularly included people of modest faith who saw them as “hospitable…filling stations” at certain stages of their lives. Nowadays, she argued, churches are seen primarily for the strongly committed and the more agnostic do not feel they have anywhere to go.
I do tend to share the view that any individual who has been a practising Christian all his or her life has probably become more strongly committed as the years have passed. It is also true that different times and events in your life might attract you towards or discourage you away from an organised religion. However, I definitely do not think that most Christian church leaders nowadays are dogmatic. Most whom I have observed have a very strong sympathy towards human frailty and inconsistency, and they both speak and practise the language of compassion. They are very happy for people to join or rejoin their congregations at any time when those people feel that God is speaking to them.
I strongly share the view of Carol Craig and others that a way for any individual to reduce personal anxiety and to increase personal happiness is to practise a positive appreciation for the things which every day are going well in your life, and to share your talents and interests with others.
And to apply anew that dictum which was often quoted among political and social activists in the past: think globally, but act locally.