When 114-year-old Gertrude Baines was asked her secret to a long life, she responded, “God. Ask Him. I took good care of myself, the way he wanted me to.”
Academics have long bickered about what religion and spirituality entail. So before answering the question of whether believing in a higher power can offer us anything tangible in life, it’s important we understand what these terms are referring to.
Religion vs. Spirituality
Religion involves beliefs, practices, or rituals that relate to a transcendent state (such as, God, Allah, HaShem, Brahman, Buddha, Dao, or ultimate truth). It’s an organized system of beliefs and practices that have developed over time within communities. Religions are often designed to enable closeness to “the transcendent” (God) and foster relationships and responsibility to others within the community.
Spirituality is defined by a connection to a sacred being, once again, “the transcendent.” The transcendent exists outside the self, but also within the self. In Western cultures, this being would be referred to as God or a higher power, while in Eastern traditions, it might be Buddha or the “ultimate truth.” Though spirituality largely overlaps with organized religion, it also extends beyond it. It involves the search for and discovery of God, on a path from not believing to questioning to believing.
Given religion and spirituality are often studied using the same measures, and overlap greatly in their meaning, let’s move forward in this article using the terms interchangeably, as does Dr. Harold Koenig in his review.
The Impact Religion Has on Mental and Social Health
Hundreds of studies have explored whether religion and spirituality can help us cope with adversity, including a wide range of illnesses and stressful events like general medical illnesses, chronic pain, and even natural disasters, war, and terrorism. The majority of studies have found that faith in a higher power was helpful in overcoming times of trouble.
Other studies have reported that religious/spiritual individuals experience greater well-being and more happiness. They also tend to be more altruistic, more forgiving, more grateful about their life, and more hopeful and optimistic. Furthermore, among people with chronic disabling illnesses, religion and spirituality are positively associated with finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Religious people have greater self-esteem, a greater sense of personal control, and lower levels of depression.
Religious/spiritual people have greater self-esteem, a greater sense of personal control in difficult situations, and lower levels of depression. They’re less likely to commit or attempt suicide, and they tend to hold negative attitudes toward suicide. Personality research has found that religious/spiritual people experience lower levels of psychoticism (behaviors like risk-taking and irresponsibility) and neuroticism, and higher levels of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion.
Religious/spiritual high school and college students are less likely to suffer from alcohol or drug use, abuse, and dependence. These early protective factors could have positive implications for a young person’s health across their adult lifespan. Religious/spiritual students also perform better academically, and are less likely to engage in crime and delinquency.
Additionally, religious/spiritual couples are more likely to have stable marriages and less likely to divorce. Religiousness has been found to facilitate marital functioning and parenting. Relatedly, the sense of community offered by religious belonging provides social support and promotes positive relationships with others. Among older adults especially, the most common form of social support outside one’s family is found in members of the religious community.
How Does a Belief in God Give You Better Mental Health?
It’s fair to ask why religion/spirituality, which is concerned with a higher power beyond this earth that we can’t see or touch, should have an impact on our everyday experiences. Dr. Harold Koenig outlines three reasons why this might be the case.
First, religion provides a way to cope with stress. This can, in turn, increase positive emotions (like hope or happiness), and reduce negative emotions and behaviors (such as depression or substance abuse). Religion offers an optimistic worldview. It tells people that there’s a greater force outside this world that loves them and cares for their well-being. This conviction can provide a sense of control and a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of adversity. Religion can also provide satisfying answers, reducing existential angst when faced with troubling questions like “Why am I here?” or “Where am I going next?”.
Religion can provide satisfying answers to existential questions like “Why am I here?”.
Second, religion provides guidance for how to go about life and how to treat others. These tend to discourage negative behaviors that often induce stress, such as excessive drug and alcohol use, crime, or infidelity. Religion promotes virtues such as honesty, forgiveness, and gratitude, which can help maintain and enhance social relationships.
Lastly, most religions place an emphasis on love and compassion toward others, gathering with friends and family at religious events, and altruistic behaviors, such as volunteering. These experiences can promote positive emotions while distracting one from their own sorrows.
Religion’s Impact on Physical Health
Many religions also emphasize an individual’s responsibility to their body. Behaviors that could pose harm to your physical integrity are usually discouraged.
Unsurprisingly then, dozens of studies have found that religious/spiritual people are less likely to smoke cigarettes, less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, more likely to exercise, and more likely to have healthier eating habits. And though they have healthier diets, they also eat more. This is the one health behavior that has been found to place religious/spiritual people at greater risk for other illnesses. Religion/spirituality are also related to better cardiovascular and cognitive functioning, as well as enhanced immune function and lower blood pressure.
Most profoundly, religious/spiritual people live longer; survival among those who regularly attend religious services is enhanced by roughly 37%.
How Believing in God Can Make You Physically Healthier
Given mental health and physical health are intertwined, the positive effect of religion/spirituality on your mental health might, in turn, enhance your physical well-being. For example, lower levels of stress and anxiety are associated with better brain function. In the words of Dr. Koenig, “the experience of negative emotions may be like pouring hydrochloric acid on the brain’s memory cells.” So, one possibility is that through improved psychological health, religion promotes better physical health.
Those who regularly attend religious services live roughly 37% longer.
The second pathway we ought to consider is the social functioning of religious/spiritual individuals. Recall, they experience more social support, better marital stability, and are less likely to engage in crime or delinquency. Virtues such as altruism, patience, and dependability are promoted, and these facilitate strong relationships. Improved social factors could have positive implications for your health and lifespan, with strong social channels promoting the sharing of health-related information with friends, family, and the broader religious community.
Lastly, most religions promote healthy behaviors, things like drinking less alcohol, avoiding drugs, exercising, eating well, and practicing sex within committed, monogamous unions. This emphasis on protecting your physical integrity might explain why, on average, religious/spiritual individuals are physically healthier and live longer.
An overwhelming number of studies support that religion/spirituality enhances mental, social, and physical health. But it’s important to note that some people may use religion to justify hatred or prejudice, to gain power and control over vulnerable people, and to foster obsessive practices – this is often the case in cults.
So while religion isn’t foolproof, on average, it’s associated with living a better life. Recall 114-year-old Gertrude Baines, who credited God for her long, fulfilling life. Maybe she knew something we ought to learn from.
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