8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life

Religion & You

guy prays with his hands folded in front of him

Are you more intuitive or rational? That answer may also say something about your belief in God, researchers are finding. (Image credit: luxorphoto | Shutterstock)

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.

Helps you resist junk food

Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

Chocolate chip cookies: Could you resist? (Image credit: Superfloss, stock.xchng)

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.

... But could make you fat

overweight woman sitting outdoors

Overweight individuals experience more everyday pain than normal-weight individuals, something that could be explained partly by physiological processes triggered by excess fat. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

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]

Puts a smile on your face

happy woman

Rather than trying so hard to attain happiness, relax, it might bring you a smile. (Image credit: © Martin Novak | Dreamstime.com)

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]

Raises self-esteem (if you live in the right place)

happy kids

Parents' bright or gloomy outlook on life played a major role in their children's comprehension of the power of positive thinking, the study showed. (Image credit: Dmitriy Shironosov | shutterstock)

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.

Soothes anxiety

mind, psychology, behavior, empathy, oxytocin, oxytocin receptor, the love hormone, showing empathy, genetic variations liked to behavior, genetic mutation empathy

A single genetic change in the 'love hormone' receptor makes a person seem more compassionate and kind to others. (Image credit: © Ejwhite | Dreamstime.com)

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.

Protects against depressive symptoms

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.

Motivates doctor visits

(Image credit: Doctor's visit via Shutterstock)

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.

Lowers your blood pressure

A blood pressure cuff.

(Image credit: Workmans Photos, Shutterstock)

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.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.