With the ‘How God Works’ podcast, psychology professor aims to explore how science can learn from religion to improve our wellbeing

A logo that says "How God Works" with "David DeSteno" written below.
“How God Works,” David DeSteno’s podcast that recently started its fourth season, aims to find the ways that science can learn from religion by looking into the science behind religious traditions and practices and how they might be able to improve our wellbeing. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

David DeSteno wants to understand how God––or at least religion––works. 

The work of DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, focuses on understanding the science behind religious practices and how they can benefit our wellbeing. Meditation has its roots in almost every major form of religion, but has since been adopted more widely for its proven health benefits. Through his podcast, “How God Works,” and his book of the same name, DeSteno brings together scientists and spiritual leaders to find other ways that bridging the divide between science and religion can make a difference in our lives.

Headshot of David DeSteno.
David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“The whole goal behind this podcast is to stop people debating about whether or not God exists,” DeSteno says. “You have fundamentalists on one side and new atheists on the other side. It’s not a question science can answer … so let’s not argue about it. Let’s come together and see what wisdom is in these practices that we can use to help people live better lives.”

With every episode of “How God Works,” DeSteno brings on experts in science and spirituality to tackle a specific topic, whether it’s climate change or grief. His show aims to provide a space for conversation about what people on all sides of the theological spectrum can learn from each other.

Funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, “How God Works” is on its fourth season. It has evolved to now include live episodes, with the next one set for May 15 at WBUR’s CitySpace. The May 15 live episode will focus on how adapting religious practices for more general use can help Gen Z and younger generations manage their increasing levels of stress. For more information, visit the event page here.

DeSteno, a self-described lapsed Catholic, is the first to admit his work is not trying to sway people to be religious or not. His interest in this area is based on several studies that have shown a “clear association that people who don’t just say they believe in God but are actively engaged in meditation, going to church or whatever their practice is live longer lives, have lower cardiovascular disease rates, less rates of cancer, less depression, less anxiety.”

He says religious practices like prayer or mourning rituals often have elements built into them that can decrease stress, increase happiness and build a sense of connection between people. Prayers and chants, for instance, lower peoples’ heart rate, which can affect their stress levels in positive ways.

These practices and traditions are almost like “life hacks that change what we’re feeling, that change what we’re deciding, that change what we do,” he says.

DeSteno’s recent work with his Social Emotions Lab is studying the value of gratitude through a similar lens. Through controlled studies, DeSteno says his lab has shown that when people feel gratitude, it makes them more helpful, more generous, more honest and more pro-social. But outside a lab setting, the ways people integrate gratitude into their daily lives––most commonly through 10-minute gratitude journaling sessions––don’t maximize the benefits.

Through the lab, DeSteno is testing a new “delivery method” for gratitude based on the Jewish practice of everyday miracles.

“When you get up in the morning, you give thanks for waking up, for being healthy, for having food, for a beautiful sunset, for a friend doing something for you,” DeSteno says. “What it’s really doing is it’s micro-dosing gratitude throughout the day, so you’re constantly feeling it.”

Practices like these can easily be adapted to benefit people more generally, but DeSteno says it’s always important to avoid sliding into religious appropriation. He’s not about to recommend that people start saying Jewish prayers if they’re not Jewish. Traditions and practices that appear in multiple religions, like the idea of covering mirrors during the mourning period that is practiced by Jews, Hindus and some Catholics.

“There’s scientific data now showing that if you reduce self-focus, it reduces whatever emotion you’re feeling,” DeSteno says. “If you’re feeling happy and I put you in front of a mirror, you’ll feel happier. If you’re feeling sad and I put you in front of a mirror, you’ll feel sadder. By covering mirrors and reducing focus on your appearance, it’s one way to reduce grief that you’re feeling.”

“You can think of these [practices] as divinely inspired practices that a loving god––he, she, it or they––gave to their creatures to help them through life or you can think of it as convergent cultural evolution that people figured out that works,” DeSteno adds. “I don’t know, but I know it works, so let’s study that.”

The focus of DeSteno’s May 15 live episode is whether these practices can be adapted to help deal with the rising levels of stress and anxiety in Gen Z. Guests on the episode will include Greg Epstein, a humanist chaplain at Harvard University; Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist who teaches at Yale University and hosts the “Happiness Lab” podcast; and Tyler VanderWeele, an epidemiologist who leads Harvard’s human flourishing program. The co-hosts of The Moth’s podcast “Grown,” Aleeza Kazmi and Alfonso Lacayo, will also appear virtually at the beginning of the show.  

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.