Many people adhere to religion for the sake of their souls, but it turns out that regular participation in faith-based activities is good for the body and mind, too.
Here are some of the ways that religion can make people happier and healthier.
Giving people religious reminders makes them feel like they have less control over their lives — but it also gives them extra abilities to resist the temptation of junk food. In a study published in January 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers exposed students to references of God in tests and games. Compared with students who saw references of pleasant but non-religious objects, the religiously cued participants felt they had less control of their future careers, but were also better prepared to resist the temptation of unhealthy treats. In other words, the researchers wrote, thinking of God could be either a burden or boon for self-control, depending on what part of your life you're trying to master.
Thinking of God could help you avoid a researcher's junk food temptation, but willpower in the lab might not translate to healthy habits in real life. According to a study presented at an American Heart Association meeting in March 2011, young adults who frequently attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to be obese by middle age than those who stay away from church. The culprit is likely Sunday potlucks and other comfort foods associated with worship, according to the researchers. But the study shouldn't be taken to represent overall health, they warned. Religious people tend to live longer than the non-religious, in part because they smoke less. [Extending Life: 7 Ways to Live Past 100]
Religious people tend to be happier than non-believers. According to research published in December 2010 in the journal American Sociological Review, this happiness boost comes not from any particular denomination or belief, but from the social joys of being part of regular services. Getting together with others at a church, temple or synagogue allows people to build social networks, closer ties and, ultimately, more life satisfaction. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]
Depending on where you live, religion may also make you feel better about yourself by making you feel part of your larger culture. People who are religious have higher self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than people who aren't, according to a January 2012 study. But this religion benefit only holds for people living in countries where religion is widespread and important. The findings, reported in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that a religious person would get a happiness boost in devout Turkey, but see no benefits in secular Sweden.
If you're religious, thinking about God can help soothe the anxiety associated with making mistakes. In other words, believers can fall back on their faith to deal with setbacks gracefully, according to a 2010 study. This trick doesn't work for atheists, though: The study also found that nonbelievers were more stressed out when they thought of God and made mistakes.
Depression recovery proceeds better against a backdrop of religion. According to one 1998 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, older patients who were hospitalized for physical problems but also suffered from depression recovered better from their mental struggles if religion was an intrinsic part of their lives. More recently, scientists reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2010 that belief in a caring God improves response to psychiatric treatment in depressed patients. Interestingly, this increased response wasn't tied to a patient's sense of hope or any other factor that might be bestowed by religion, according to study researcher Patricia Murphy of Rush University.
"It was tied specifically to the belief that a supreme being cared," Murphy said.
In fact, religion is linked to health in general, possibly because religious people have more social support, better coping skills and a more positive self-image than people who don't join faith-based communities. In one 1998 study published in the journal Health Education & Behavior, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that regular churchgoers are more likely to get preventative care, in this case mammograms. About 75 percent of 1,517 church members in the study got regular mammograms, compared with 60 percent of a sample of 510 women who were not church members and attended less regularly on average.
People who attend church often have lower blood pressure than those who don't go at all, according to a 2011 study out of Norway. Those results are particularly impressive given that church-going is relatively rare in Norway, and researchers thought that cultural differences might prevent religious Norwegians from getting the kind of blood pressure benefits often seen in American churchgoers. In fact, participants who went to church at least three times a month had blood pressures one to two points lower than non-attendees, results similar to those seen in the United States.
The benefits seem pegged to how faithful believers are in their church routines. People who went once a month or less had a half-point blood pressure benefit over non-attendees, and people who went between one and three times a month had a one-point reduction in blood pressure. The faithful may get lessons in coping with stress and anxiety from the pulpit, according to the researchers, or they might get a relaxation boost by singing, praying and performing rituals with others.