There is perhaps no human enterprise that provokes more disagreement than religion. But one aspect of religiosity that is considerably less controversial is the effect it has on people’s health and well-being. Numerous studies have established the health and happiness benefits of participating in a religious community and believing in something larger than oneself.
In a review article that considered 42 studies and more than 125,000 participants, researchers reported that religious people were 25 percent less likely to die during the periods of study than non-religious people. The religious live an average of seven years longer, and have lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, and reduced stress and worry compared to non-religious people. Religious people get sick less, get cancer less, tolerate pain better, have fewer heart attacks, and recover faster from illness than do non-religious people.
Why is it that religion is so good for your health? Women are more religious than men, so researchers initially wondered whether religion’s positive impact on health could be explained by the fact that women live longer than men in general. But a study found that women who attended religious services regularly were 20 percent less likely to die during the period of study than other women, ruling out that explanation.
Researchers now think that religion’s impact on health may be due primarily to three interdependent and mutually reinforcing factors: healthy behaviors, social support, and emotional well-being.
First, religious people are known to lead healthier lifestyles. For one thing, they pray and meditate more. Religiosity also promotes self-control, and religious people drink and smoke less than their non-religious counterparts.
Second, religious people enjoy a high level of social support: they provide comfort to each other in times of distress, and they’re more likely to get married and less likely to get divorced.
Finally, religious people experience a greater degree of positive emotions, including higher levels of life satisfaction and optimism about the future. Religion also provides a stable, coherent worldview, helping people find meaning and purpose in their lives, both of which boost life satisfaction.
Studies have shown that life satisfaction, optimism, positive emotion, and the absence of negative emotions all predict health and longevity, so it may be that religious people benefit from a mutually-reinforcing virtuous cycle of happiness and health: Not only are the religious happier in general, but their happiness may itself be part of the key to their superior longevity.
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