Contact: Alyssa Cheadle, PhD
For Release: March 7, 2019
There’s strong evidence that religious people enjoy better health and live longer lives than those favoring a strictly secular lifestyle. But what is it about spiritual involvement that fosters health? A key benefit is that religion encourages us to feel a purpose for living, suggests a pioneering study out today. That feeling of purpose may encourage us to take better care of ourselves. The study will be released today at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Vancouver.
This is the first large, long-term research to look at how having a sense of mission on earth may affect the future health and lifespan of people with differing levels of religious commitment, says Kevin Masters, PhD, Professor of Psychology at University of Colorado, Denver. He worked on the study with PhD candidate Christianne Biggane, MA., and colleague Jennifer Boylan, PhD.
The 18-year study began with 6,905 Americans, a nationally representative sample aged 25 to 74. Everyone answered a series of questions about how religious and/or spiritual they considered themselves. For example: How closely did they identify with their religion? How important was it to marry into the same religion, raise their children in the religion? Did they make life decisions based on their religious or spiritual principles? Participants also filled out questionnaires about how much purpose they felt in living. Nine to 10 years later, about three-fourths of those still living repeated the questionnaires.
Then, 18 years from the start, scientists also asked the participants to rate their health, and checked to see which study participants had died.
Religious service attendance and the overall religious/spirituality score both predicted the likelihood of a person dying 18 years later—the more religious commitment, the more likely the person was to stay alive over the 18 years. But a feeling of purpose also predicted a longer life. And when the purpose in life rating was teased out of the religion scores, the link between religion and longer life was no longer significant. At least some of this link, perhaps a substantial amount, could be explained by the fact that more religiously-oriented people felt more purpose for living.
That makes sense to Masters. “One of the things religion typically does is give you explanations for your place in the world. It makes the world understandable and can give you an overall purpose, even consistent social support around that purpose,” he says. While these findings need to be replicated, “it could be that purpose in life is a significant player in the well-known relationship between religion and health outcomes and mortality.”
The results also offer a possible route to better health for those who could never embrace spirituality or religion, Masters adds. “Find purpose and meaning—and live by what you’ve found. That’s going to bode well for you.”
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”