Do people who are religious or who have a nonreligious set of spiritual beliefs that guide them in their daily life have an advantage over those who don’t when it comes to mental and physical well-being? A growing body of research suggests that religion and spirituality may help some people better cope with illness, depression and stress.
Although religion and spirituality may not cure illness, they can have a positive effect on your health. Several medical studies show a connection between religious beliefs or practices and a decreased risk of self-destructive behaviors such as smoking, substance abuse and suicide. Other studies suggest that people who have regular religious practices tend to live longer and may be better able to enjoy life despite health issues like chronic pain.
A complex subject
The subject of spirituality is challenging for researchers when they attempt to frame it in scientific terms. One reason is that there’s no widely accepted definition of spirituality. Some people associate spirituality strictly with religious beliefs, while others associate it with nature, art, meditation or inner peace or harmony.
Yet, some researchers think that measuring spirituality with questions about peacefulness, harmony, and well-being is meaningless since it results in spirituality being simply defined as good mental health, so they instead prefer to define spirituality in terms of religious practices and beliefs.
As one researcher puts it, “Spirituality is an important, multidimensional aspect of the human experience that is difficult to fully understand or measure using the scientific method, yet convincing evidence in the medical literature supports its beneficial role in the practice of medicine.”
The Association of American Medical Colleges defines spirituality broadly: “Spirituality is recognized as a factor that contributes to health in many persons. The concept of spirituality is found in all cultures and societies. It is expressed in an individual’s search for ultimate meaning through participation in religion and/or belief in God, family, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, and the arts.”
The effects on mental well-being
Several recent studies (which focus on spirituality in a religious context) suggest that spirituality has the potential to:
• Prevent depression. In a study of more than 92,500 postmenopausal women, those who reported attending religious services were 56 percent more likely to view life positively and 27 percent less likely to have symptoms of depression than women who didn’t attend services. The study appeared in the May 2012 Journal of Religion and Health.
• Boost mental health. Comparing 160 people from different faiths—Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists—researchers found that increased religious spirituality was significantly linked to better mental health, specifically extroversion and decreased neuroticism, regardless of religious affiliation. The study authors noted in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health that being religious appears to decrease people’s sense of self in a positive way, leaving them to feel more connected with the world.
• Buffer against daily stress. Everyday religious experiences help people better cope with everyday stress, say researchers after studying 244 older adults ages 55 to 80. They reported in the Journal of Gerontology last year that being religious protects against the negative impact of daily stressors.
It’s unclear how religious involvement—or involvement in spiritual practices such as meditation—bolsters health. Some experts say belief in a loving God may directly influence health. Others suggest that spirituality or religious involvement promotes healthier habits, a positive outlook, altruism, better coping strategies in the face of adverse health events and increased social support through group membership and congregation.
If you’re interested in improving your spiritual health, try these suggestions from the American Academy of Family Physicians:
• Identify the things in your life that give you a sense of inner peace, love, strength, or connection to others or a higher power.
• Set aside time each day to do the things that help you spiritually, which can range from attending religious services, praying, meditating, or doing yoga to reading a chapter of your favorite inspirational book or taking a nature walk.
• Engage in community activities and volunteer work.
Also try practicing forgiveness, says one study. The willingness to forgive others is associated with better mental health, likely a result of having higher self-esteem, greater satisfaction with life, and less anger, depression and anxiety, according to past and current research.