"What you say flows from what is in your heart." Jesus spoke these words (Luke 6:45) in reference to good and evil. These days, what we say gets documented on social media, and a recent study examined whether our updates on Facebook actually flow from our hearts enough to give a sense of our emotional health.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania collected questionnaires and Facebook status updates from 75,000 people to find out how the language we use on Facebook reflects who we are and whether that language can be used to identify age, gender, and personality.
Not only could researchers predict a participant's gender based on Facebook updates with 92 percent accuracy, they also could measure emotional stability and neuroticism.
According to the "word clouds" created from frequently used words, researchers found emotional stability is associated with playing sports. One researcher, Lyle Ungar, suggested, "We should explore the possibility that neurotic individuals would become more emotionally stable if they played more sports." Makes sense.
But even a glance at the word cloud for emotional stability shows other apparent connections to emotional health as well: family, friends, and faith. People with high levels of emotional stability also frequently posted Facebook updates referencing church, Christ, and being "blessed."
Such comments, quickly fired off from laptops and phones so commonly they often read like clichés, may be indicators of soul-deep health. Although usually calculated to some degree, Facebook posts tend to be more quick, candid, and mundane than other forms of written communication. Perhaps in a medium given largely to commenting on the everyday, we reveal our hearts more openly.
Prior studies have shown the value of both physical exercise and the exercise of faith—the status update topics researchers associated with positive wellbeing. In support of the power of faith, one study showed a strong positive correlation between strength of belief in God and the effectiveness of treatment for mental illness. Another indicated that religious affiliation decreases risk of suicide. Several have shown faith plays a powerful role in promoting healing not only mentally, but in general. And of course, surrender to a "higher power" is the cornerstone of 12-step programs for recovery from addiction—which is itself deeply linked to mental illness and emotional difficulties.
While faith does not vaccinate us from suffering or disease, it can make us healthier. It can also provide overriding purpose and hope, two of the requirements for the best kind of life we can live.
This idea flies in the face of Freudian psychology, which treated faith and religious expression as symptoms of neurosis. The importance of faith communities and religious expression are now widely accepted among mental health professionals, most of whom embrace a very different understanding of the mind than what Freud used. The National Alliance on Mental Illness even sponsors a branch devoted to encouraging and equipping faith communities to help.
Ironically, media like Facebook, so revealing in this study, have made flesh-and-blood community rarer and more critical than ever. In an age when emotional venting hums like an electrical current through relationships with both friends and strangers we see onscreen, we need the healthy, transformative community we can find only in being with each other.
We are made for a different kind of life than the one that comes easiest to most of us; a little self-discipline—doing what we already know is good for us—can pay big dividends. In this age, coming together as a community does require effort. It requires us to gather in physical space when we're accustomed to the ease of virtual connection. It requires us to come into close contact with people who have a different perspective—and in a virtual world, we can, instead, indulge the temptation to listen only to those who say what we're already thinking. We know that the power of community can be transformative. History has seen it among every group of people who's made something of the world—they have done it together.
There's a reason Scripture uses the metaphor of a body to describe our relationships with each other. We are made for relationship, both with God and each other, and we Christians are inextricably linked by our common faith and Spirit. This is no less true for people among us who tend toward less emotional stability. "In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care…God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity…If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad" (1 Corinthians 12:22-26).
For the church, the health-promoting benefits of faith and relationship are just one more reason to intentionally engage people struggling with mental health—and to speak openly about how such struggles fit with the overall Christian theology of suffering and redemption. People who struggle with mental health, even chronically, can nonetheless live emotionally stable lives. Doing so often requires ongoing medication and therapy, even occasional hospitalization, but some of the best additional therapies are a loving community and a life-giving connection to God. These are among the most basic and best of what the church has to offer.
Sadly, many people with mental illness turn to the church (more frequently than to any other source of help) and find well-meaning but confused responses, avoidance, or even outright rejection.
So let us gather. And as we do, let us not forget the people who might need the salve of faith-filled community more than anyone: people with mental illness. Like other illness, we should encourage medical intervention and healthy habits. But we must not ignore the power of a community of faith, for both healing and management of disease.
Amy Simpson is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). She also serves as editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.