Worship is already considered “good for the soul,” but recent research from Vanderbilt University suggests there might be even greater health benefits to the spiritual act. According to the new study published in PLOS ONE, those who attend worship services at church, synagogue, or mosque experience less stress and tend to live longer than those who don’t.
Researchers surveyed more than 5,000 men and women, and roughly 64 percent of the study participants were regular attenders at worship services. Those spiritually-included, middle-aged adults between 40 and 65 who attended church more than once a week, saw their mortality risk drop by 55 percent.
On the other hand, those who did not attend worship services had a greater abundance of negative physiological markers linked to stress, cardiovascular health, and inflammation. The stress-reducing results of worship held steady when researchers controlled for education, income, insurance, and social support status.
Community Can Improve Well-Being
According to Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin and co-author of Brain Briefs, the effects of worship tend to run deep. “Research suggests that a feeling of belonging to a social group increases well-being,” he explains. “In addition, people often feel better about life when they feel connected to something bigger than themselves. Religion is one way to achieve that feeling of connectedness.”
People often turn to religion in difficult times to mitigate stress, says Markman. “Research on ‘terror management theory’ argues that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they often look for comfort in lasting cultural elements that are bigger than themselves,” he explains. “Religions focus on creating a relationship with the divine, which provides just such a connection.”
Religion Can Increase Feelings of Connectedness and Reduce Stress
Especially in difficult times, where stress and uncertainty is high, religion might help people create meaning out of the chaos and find a sense of purpose—for instance, by exploring what Biblical stories mean to them on a personal level. “It is easy to believe that you are going through something impossibly difficult, but religions can often help people see their current situation in the context of their whole life and the lives of other people in society,” Markman says. “In this way, people may have an easier time acknowledging that the bad times are never quite as bad as they seem.”
Although religions are different, they have some commonalities that might explain the health perks seen in this study. “Almost every religion has some kind of meditative practice, in which prayers are repeated in a way that fosters concentration in the moment,” Markman says. “These kinds of meditative practices are related to kinds of mindfulness practices that are popular now. Engaging in one of these practices, either using mindfulness techniques or the practices of a particular religion, can help people get in touch with their spiritual side—and these practices also help to reduce stress.”
In addition, corporate worship practices require people to gather together and connect with their common beliefs. “Religious service are generally social experiences, and these social experiences aimed at a common goal help people to feel a part of something bigger than themselves,” Markman explains. “People can get this experience by attending the meetings of a religious group for several weeks so that they start feeling part of a community.”
Other Types of Worship Can Have Health Benefits, Too
Just like you can engage in meditation or mindfulness outside the context of a specific religion, you can also engage in social experiences similar to worshippers’ regular meetings. “It can also happen for people who engage with other groups that have a calling, like volunteer organizations, animal shelters, or Habitat for Humanity,” Markman explains.
So, no matter your religious affiliation, you can still derive the stress-buffering benefits from the meaning, connectedness, and social-bonding involved in worship experiences.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.