A prayer a day keeps the doctor away

Written by William C. Duncan

May 13, 2021

The last year has been dominated by concerns about health – not only from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also from the effects on well-being and mental health due to the social isolation the pandemic response has sometimes required.

The mental-health stress test of the pandemic has disclosed some vulnerabilities to loneliness and mental illness that should make us think about the resources we have to address these challenges going forward.

One of these is religious observance.

Many religious organizations and people of faith are well known for contributing to society through things like help after emergencies, safety net assistance, and social services. Some of the social benefits of religion are less visible and more personal, but no less significant.

An important source of information on the connection between religious participation and personal well-being is the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

A recent summary of some of the program’s findings, specifically noting potential benefits for women, included the following:

  • a ”25% reduction[] in depression among women who attend services weekly compared with non-attenders”;
  • a “5- to 6-fold reduction[] in suicide”;
  • “a 33% lower hazard of death from despair among men and a 68% lower hazard among women compared with non-attenders”;
  • “and a 26% reduction in all-cause mortality (another study found a 33% reduction in 16-year all-cause mortality for more than weekly attendance in a cohort of 74,534 women).”

A large study of American youth found mental, physical and behavioral health benefits from being “raised in a religious or spiritual environment.” For example, those who attended religious services frequently were “12% less likely to suffer from depression” and “33% less likely to use illicit drugs.” Those who frequently prayed or meditated were “33% less likely to start having sex at a young age” and “40% less likely to have a STD.”

In addition to these protective effects, those engaged in frequent prayer or meditation were “38% more likely to volunteer in their community” and “47% more likely to have a sense of mission and purpose.” Frequent attenders of religious services were “18% more likely to report higher levels of happiness” and “87% more likely to have high levels of forgiveness.”

More generally, the Program’s director, Tyler VanderWeele, has explained in USA Today:

The research at Harvard and elsewhere indicates that, possibly due to a message of faith or hope, those who attend services are more optimistic and have lower rates of depression. The research from Harvard has also shown that attendance protects against suicide. Others have found that churchgoers report having a greater purpose in life and developing more self-control — both mechanisms by which service attendance might affect health.

In a recent survey, 60% of Americans agreed “that religion for some people is a fundamental part of ‘who I am’ and should be protected accordingly.” That element of personal identity appears to provide strong protective benefits to the physical, mental and behavioral health of both adults and children. Through its positive impacts on health, it also benefits the nonreligious – who along with everyone else must pay for widespread personal health problems through their insurance premiums and/or taxes. In securing protection for religious exercise, we may be doing more good than we realize.

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