Religion and Well–being: Assessing the Evidence
Is religion good for ‘well–being’? This report evaluates the evidence from nearly 140 academic studies. (2016)
Nick Spencer writes about Theos’ latest report, and why religion might be good for well–being.
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The idea that religion is good for your well–being should, by now, surprise no–one. Study after study after study show a correlation between the two. The latest Theos report, Religion and Well–being: Assessing the evidence collates 139 studies (I’m sure there are many others) and shows quite how univocal the evidence is.
The report goes beyond that basic association and tries to tease apart the terms. Religion can mean lots of different things – e.g. affiliation, subjective religiosity, belief, religious group participation, and religious personal participation – as can well–being – e.g. subjective well–being, mental health, physical health, and health supporting behaviours. How do these different factors correlate with one another?
The short answer is messily but, generally speaking, the more serious your religious commitment the more likely there is to be some uplift, and not only to your subjective well–being but to your mental health, to health supporting behaviours and even to your physical health. You can read the results in detail here.
It is important to stress that studies like these show correlation not causation, what is happening not why it is happening. To move to the realm of explanations we need to step away from the world of numbers and embrace that of ideas.
Some will claim that the key idea and fundamental explanation is a straightforward one: what we see here has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with group activity. It’s not faith that makes a difference but simply doing things with other people. There is some truth in this and much evidence to show that meeting up together is the key thing. But that is not the whole story.
For a start, not all group activity is good your mental health and well–being, as various sects, cults and the many dysfunctional and often disbanded groups and burnt out individuals that litter civil society show. There is more to well–being than just being together.
Second, some studies show that for all the meeting up does do you good, religious group activity shows a measurably greater uplift to well–being than other ‘secular’ kinds.
Third, is it not religious group participation alone that shows a well–being uplift but other aspects of religiosity, such as belief and personal religious activities like prayer and meditation. In other words, whatever is going on here is more than just hanging out together.
One, more satisfactory, way of explaining this might be in the idea of ‘inhabiting a narrative’, an idea that combines belief, personal religious activity and group participation. In essence, the more that someone inhabits an overarching narrative of love and generosity which they understand to be spiritual or ‘ontological’ (i.e. written into the very being of existence) rather than contingent (i.e. simply an admirable but essentially arbitrary personal choice with no resonance beyond the individual), the more likely they are to enjoy better well–being.
The key word here is ‘inhabit’. Believing such a story might do you some good – but if you go on living as if the world is red in tooth and claw, it is unlikely to penetrate your life very deeply. In the same way, believing in it and then attempting to connect with it profoundly and personally through prayer and meditation is, again, likely to do you some good – but if your inhabiting if this narrative remains essentially ‘self–ish’ it is unlikely to pervade your soul. But believing it, embodying it personally and then living it our practically – inhabiting that narrative with all your heart and mind – that might make all the difference.
This might be why religion is good for well–being, because (at its best) it draws you into a story in which the final good of love is recognised and realised, in as far this is possible in our dull sublunary world.
Perhaps, but it is worth ending on two caveats. First, the emphasis throughout has been on ‘likely’: the relationship between any kind of religion and any kind of well–being is only ever probalistic, never deterministic.
Second, the inhabitation needs to be authentic. As soon as the desire to achieve wellbeing becomes the goal of religiosity, rather than a side–effect, the whole system collapses in on itself. Joining community for the sake of ‘me’ is to kill community. Being generous for the sake of receiving something is to obliterate the meaning of generosity. Prayer that is a shopping list directed at some cosmic cash card soon ceases to be prayer.
If there is any well–being to be got from religion, it should be got on the way, almost accidentally. Instead, to adapt a phrase, the seeker after well–being should seek first the kingdom of heaven, because only then these others things will be given to you.
Image from maxpixel.com available in the public domain
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Posted 29 June 2016
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.