The Spirit of Health Research

That spiritual and religious factors significantly influence health outcomes is now indisputable, and healthcare professionals—from M.D.s and nurses to social workers to chaplains—have taken notice. According to the journal Research News, “Since 1990, almost 1,500 research studies, research reviews, articles and clinical trials have been published on the connection of spirituality or religion to medicine and health—a figure equal to the total of all such pieced published prior to 1990.” Now the next phase begins: figuring out the best ways to integrate the spiritual dimension of human life into the secular, scientific world of medicine; and refining the research so that we may accurately determine what works under what conditions to produce what benefits.

The research that’s been done so far falls into three basic categories: religious involvement; spiritual practices; the participation of others. Here are some observations about each area that might help guide your personal decisions.

Religious participation. A major portion of the studies have focused on the extent to which people are involved in organized religion. Most measure variables such as church attendance, although some have surveyed beliefs and attitudes on matters of faith. Overall, the findings indicate that people who frequently attend religious services heal from illness faster, have fewer risk factors for major diseases and live longer than those who do not participate in religious life.

Now, researchers are starting to fine-tune those broad findings. Religious involvement is one thing, but what about the quality of that involvement? Two people sitting next to each other in a pew week after week might seem on the surface to be having the same experience, but are they? One might be overwhelmed by feelings of love and devotion; the other might be consumed by guilt, fear or anger. One might be comforted and cheered by the words of the preacher; the other might be annoyed or confused. One might be fully present and glad to be there; the other might be distracted by worries and anxieties and wish that he or she was someplace else. Clearly, such differences will influence their respective experiences. Over time, they would no doubt also influence their health.

In other words, it’s not terribly scientific to lump all churchgoers together. Some forms of religious participation are no doubt healthier than others. Why wouldn’t they be? Some forms of exercise are healthier than others. Some diets are healthier than others. Some relationships are healthier than others. Why not religion? Indeed, scientists are now using terms such as “positive religious coping” and “negative religious coping.” One experiment, for example, found that “people who experienced disappointment, frustration or unforgiveness in their relationships with God reported more emotional distress than other people.” Another found that hospital patients with “religious anxiety”—thinking their illness was a form of punishment or that God had abandoned them—are likely to die sooner than their more tranquil counterparts.

Bottom line: showing up is good, but what you bring to the experience matters. As one wit put it, sitting in a house of worship doesn’t make you spiritual any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. Is your heart in it? Is your mind comfortable with what’s being said? Are you struggling with dogma? Do you feel guilty for having doubts? Are you angry with religious authorities or with God? Do you feel religiously inadequate? Are you afraid of what might happen if you fall short of your religion’s expectations? Such factors might have a far bigger influence on your health than what you profess to believe in or whether you perform the prescribed rituals.

Spiritual practices. Separate and apart from studies on religious involvement are those on the direct impact of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation. These practices, which tend to have religious roots, can also be taken up as secular forms of self-improvement. I, for example, have been practicing a form of meditation for 37 years. It’s the central component of my spiritual life, and I regard it as sacred. At the same time, many of the people to whom I’ve taught the practice do it for the same reasons they might take up exercise or change their nutritional habits: because a doctor or a friend told them it would be good for their health.

Motivation aside, thousands of studies have found that contemplative practices can have a profound impact on mental and physical well-being. The primary explanation is that by eliciting “the relaxation response,” such disciplines can dramatically neutralize stress and the ravages of our high-adrenaline lifestyles, without the side effects of tranquilizers, antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals. Similarly, medical professionals might once have nodded politely and concealed their cynicism when patients said they were praying to be healed. By now, they have seen the data. Like meditation, prayer turns out to have measurable health benefits.

Here too, discrimination is called for. For many years, researchers did not bother to distinguish one form of spiritual practice from another. They figured if a study was performed on Transcendental Meditation or Vipassana or mindfulness, then the data could be applied to every contemplative discipline, whether it had been in use for thousands of years or just made up. Now, scientists are beginning to realize that even minor differences in practice can produce significant differences in results. In the coming years, we’ll learn much more about which practices produce which benefits for which people under which conditions. In the meantime, buyer beware. It’s not just whether you meditate or pray, it’s how you meditate or pray.

A little help from your friends. While the bulk of the research has centered on things that individuals do for themselves, another group of scientists has looked at what happens when people pray for the health of others. It turns out, that patients who are prayed for actually do better than comparable patients without that assistance. One could argue that just knowing that people care enough to pray for you might elicit some type of placebo effect that aids the healing process. But experiments have been done in which patients don’t know that anyone is praying for them, and the results have been comparable. Religious people have taken this as proof that God intervenes, or that angels or other celestials come through when called upon. Others theorize that space is not an obstacle to the power of healing; that feelings of love and compassion are not confined to our heads and hearts, but radiate outward like radio waves.

Whatever the explanation, if the research continues to indicate that thought at a distance can, in fact, contribute to healing, you might be wise to organize a prayer circle the next time you or a loved one gets sick. Even if you’re skeptical, it can’t hurt, can it?

As the data keep pouring in, as they no doubt will, one caveat is worth keeping in mind: let’s not trivialize spirituality and religion. Thinking of spiritual disciplines solely as health interventions would be like making love just to release tension or having children for the tax write-off: If that’s all it is to you, you’re missing out on an awful lot. The core purpose of spirituality is to end the separation between the individual and the Infinite wholeness. Connecting with that which we regard as sacred or divine opens us up to a treasure trove of peace, love, joy and unity. But physical health is not a bad fringe benefit.

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021