The Force Multiplier

How Faith & Values Are Two of Your Most Important Survival Tools

By Ben Sherwood

The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life
By Ben Sherwood

For the past few years, I’ve searched far and wide for the secrets of the world’s most effective survivors and thrivers. What does it take to bounce back from every kind of adversity? Why do some people beat the odds and others surrender? I’ve interviewed survivors and experts on five continents. No matter where I go, I always encounter the same surprising and singular answer.

At the Naval Survival Training Institute in Pensacola, Florida, I visited with a legendary character named Ray Smith. He’s one of the navy’s top survival experts who co-authored the latest edition of How to Survive on Land and Sea. After a lifetime training marines and sailors on surviving in hostile environments, he’s seventy now. I hoped he would share the #1 trick of the survival trade. So I began with a direct question: “What’s the secret of survival?”

Without hesitating, he answered: “Faith in God.”

“Really?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s a major factor in all survival scenarios.” In military parlance, faith is a force multiplier, a factor that significantly increases or multiplies your strength or effectiveness. When you’re feeling weak, Smith says, faith pumps you up. When you’re run down, it gives you a boost. When you’re discouraged, it keeps you going.

The other day, I called a man named Tom Lutyens, one of the top survival specialists with the U.S. air force. He lives in Washington state where he trains men and women to survive every kind of adversity. I asked him what’s the one thing you need to survive the Great Recession and – God forbid – the Great Depression II. His answer – first taught to him by his parents who survived the economic collapse of the 1930s – was simple: Faith in God, family and friends. Ultimately, Lutyens says, that’s all you really need to overcome any challenge.

But don’t just take it from military survival experts. Listen to the scientists at the University of Texas who researched the power of faith and found that people who go to church regularly live around seven years longer than people who don’t. That’s right: seven years. More precisely, if you go to church once a week, your advantage is 6.6 years. If you worship more than once a week, you’re survival edge increases to 7.6 years.

Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University Medical Center is one the pioneers in the field of faith and health. He’s written more than thirty-five books and three hundred articles on how people’s religious beliefs influence their mental and physical well being. It’s important to note: Dr. Koenig isn’t trying to prove the existence of God or anything else supernatural. (And nor am I.) Dr. Koenig simply wants to understand the impact of faith in the lives of 80 percent of the world’s population who are involved in organized religion. That’s 5.2 billion souls.

I asked Dr. Koenig about the stunning seven-year statistic. “That has nothing to do with whether God exists or doesn’t, whether prayer works or not,” he explains. It’s based entirely on the fact that religious attendance produces “psychological, social, and behavioral consequences” that help you live longer. People with committed religious beliefs tend to have stronger support systems and more solid relationships (i.e. they’re less isolated); they and are more likely to follow teachings that reinforce a healthier lifestyle. In short, religious people usually have friends and family and they’re less likely to smoke, drink, or engage in risky business.

Faith is a powerful and universal survival tool. And so are values and principles. Dr. Dennis Charney is dean of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He’s also the reigning king of resilience studies in America. Regardless of your genes or background, he says, everyone can boost their resilience by following a plan that he calls the Resilience Prescription. The first and most important step, Dr. Charney says, is to practice optimism. Another important step, he argues, is to develop a moral compass and a set of unbreakable beliefs. That means values and principles that are greater than you. When you’re knocked down by life, your values don’t break. These principles and beliefs are the safety net that catches you when you falter or fall, he says.

Dr. Charney isn’t promoting a specific set of values – and nor am I. We’ll leave that up to you. The point is that you can improve your resilience and chances of survival in a crisis by finding a purpose greater than yourself and forging beliefs that won’t shatter when – like everyone – your inevitably slammed by life.

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Ben Sherwood is the author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, a New York Times bestseller. A former executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America, he is executive director of TheSurvivorsClub.org, an online resource center and support network for people facing all kinds of adversity.

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