Faith and wellbeing

This page in brief ….

A growing number of medical and psychological studies are showing that spirituality, religious faith and practice have a definite positive impact on people’s wellbeing. Belief in a loving God, prayer and meditation, and attendance at religious meetings have been shown to lead to improved physical and mental health, including lower levels of worry, stress, depression, suicide and destructive behaviour.

In some cases, these practices lead to changes in the structure of the brain that improve cognitive and intellectual functioning – sometimes even in unbelievers who take up the practices.

This page is a summary of the findings. (Details of the studies and links are at Studies of medicine and religion.)

Physical health

Religious and spiritual people who participate in religious activities such as prayer, meditation and attendance at religious meetings tend to have better physical health than non-believers.

They have better cardiovascular health, they are less likely to suffer from heart disease, die from cirrhosis of the liver, or have high blood pressure, and they recover more quickly from surgery and cancer. Chronically ill believers have below average mortality rates and pain levels. And people who believe in a loving God have dramatically better response to HIV/AIDS than those who have a harsh view of God, and spend less time in hospital recovering from heart disease.

Prayer reduces the pain and the ability to cope with pain of those suffering chronic back pain. The effects of prayer on health are very complex, and are summarised at Can prayer assist healing?.

Mental health

Worry and stress

Believers tend to have better mental health than non-believers. They worry less and are more tolerant of life’s uncertainties and setbacks. Religious faith improves a person’s ability to cope with being widowed, raising developmentally challenged children, divorce, unemployment or disability. However those who focus on an authoritarian God can make themselves more fearful.

Depression, anxiety and suicide

Religious people suffer less from anxiety and depression. This is particularly true of those coping with the uncertainties of major illnesses such as cancer, or recovery after major surgery. As a result non-religious people are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than are religious people.

Destructive and anti-social behaviour

Non-religious people are far more likely to suffer from substance abuse (alcohol or drugs) than religious people. Many studies show that religious people, and religious communities, have lower rates of crime, although a smaller number of studies (several not conducted with academic rigour) show the opposite, or no effect.

Happiness and mental health generally

Religious people, especially “religiously active people”, tend to be happier all over the world. In stressful marital situations, those who pray for their spouses tend to behave in more positive ways. Religious people tend to have better emotional health, especially after trauma, than non-religious people. In cancer patients, spiritual well-being is associated with less anxiety, depression, or distress.

Holistic health

Increasingly, health researchers and practitioners are seeing people holistically – physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual – and treating patients accordingly.

One study examined 600 scientific papers which showed that religious and spiritual people tend to be healthier, both mentally and physically, and tend to respond better to treatment when they are not well.

Regardless of the beliefs of the doctor or psychiatrist, we now know that a patient’s beliefs should be taken into account by medical professionals as it can be a significant factor in their recovery.

Neuroplasticity

The structure of our brains can be altered by our thought, a property known as neuroplasticity. People who pray or meditate can alter and strengthen parts of their brains in ways which reduce depression and anxiety, and improve mental health. This explains some of the positive connections between faith and wellbeing.

It appears that even non-believers who practice meditation can gain many of the same positive results

Conclusion

It is well established that some religious practices have great benefits. It isn’t clear how big a part belief also plays in these positive results. It may also be that there is some other coincidental causes such as social support systems. Many studies are clear that while they can establish correlation, it is harder to demonstrate mechanisms. But psychologist David Larsen writes:

If a new health treatment were discovered that helped reduce the rate of teenage suicide, prevent drug and alcohol abuse, improve treatment for depression, reduce recovery time from surgery, lower divorce rates and enhance a sense of wellbeing, one would think that every physician in the country would be scrambling to try it.

In “God: the evidence”, Patrick Glynn summarises some of this information and suggests that it is a good reason to believe that God exists. Of course many disagree with Glynn’s interpretations of this data and his conclusions regarding the existence of God, but the clear connection between faith and wellbeing is now well accepted by academics and health professionals.

Neuroscientists Andy Newberg and Mark Waldman are not believers, but they appreciate and encourage religious and spiritual development, and conclude that even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health.

Photo: MorgueFile.

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