Christians, and followers of other religions, believe that God listens when they pray, and answers them, sometimes with very helpful results. Sceptics scorn the idea and ask for proof, and some scientists try to test the idea.
But sometimes the results are quite surprising!
Prayer and wellbeing
Many studies have shown that religious believers, on average, have greater wellbeing than non-believers (see Faith and Wellbeing, and this paper by a university economist which lists 10 studies supporting this conclusions).
But the benefits of prayer are not so clear. Studies of the effects of prayer on the recovery of sick patients show variable results, with about two thirds of the studies showing a small benefit (see Can prayer assist healing?). Dramatic healing miracles are reported all over the world (see Healing miracles and God), and some of them seem to be supported by good evidence, although obly a small percentage can be verified.
So some people need to measure things more accurately!
The economic benefits of prayer
The Science on Religion blog reports that the same economist, from the University of California, decided to try to put a dollar figure on the benefits of praying.
The economist used an approach that is commonly used by economists to estimate value where there isn’t a clear dollar value for some benefit. People are asked a series of subtle questions which lead to an assessment of how much they would be willing to pay for certain benefits, or would need to be paid to compensate for forgoing certain benefits. This approach is commonly used to evaluate such benefits as environmental improvements (e.g. cleaner water or saving a species), but here it was used to assess the benefits of prayer in increasing people’s happiness.
Pray and be happy
Based on US survey data over several years, it was estimated that regular, private prayer makes people’s lives happier, and they would require about about $53,000 a year to get the same happiness. Since the median household income is about $45,000, this is a significant happiness benefit, and one not able to be purchased any other way by most families.
How can we use this information?
I don’t know how a university economist would use this information, but I can’t see Warren Buffett or Jamie Packer deciding to invest in “pay as you pray” centres, nor am I finding it easy to imagine Richard Dawkins beginning a life of disciplined prayer when he sees the evidence. And the paper only estimates the value of prayer to those who currently pray, and sceptics presumably would not get the same benefit – or would they?
But perhaps those of us who do pray regularly can feel a little smug – and thereby lose some of the spiritual benefits of prayer. 🙂 I’m not sure if God would be impressed with prayers offered because it was the cheapest way to be happy!
In the end, true prayer has less selfish aims, and any gains are a happy by-product.