By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
A new study released last Thursday showed that those who attend religious services regularly are more optimistic and have a lesser tendency to be depressed, compared to those who do not attend services at all.
This is in corroboration with previous research that religious participation can promote psychological and physical health, reduce risk of death possibly by calming people in stressful times, creating meaningful social interactions and helping curtail bad habits.
The results revealed that those who said they attended services more than once a week in the previous month were 56 percent more likely to be above the median score in a measure of optimism than those who did not attend services, according to the study published in the Journal of Religion and Health. Additionally those who reported attending services weekly were 22 percent less likely to be depressed or have depressive symptoms compared to non-attenders.
However authors warned that people should not assume that adopting a religion and heading off to a church, synagogue, temple or mosque would brighten their lives. “There is a correlation, but that does not mean there is causality,” said Eliezer Schnall, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Yeshiva University in New York. “One could argue people who are more optimistic may be drawn to religious services. The person who says, 'I guess if I go to services, that will make me more optimistic' - while a possibility, that may not be true,” he said.
Schnall added that this study examined older women, so the benefits of religious activity may not apply to younger people or to males. Older women in particular have been shown in past research to engage in more social interaction at services, and to gain the most from it.
In a parallel study Schnall additionally found that those who attended religious services regularly reduced their risk of death by 20 percent over the follow-up period that averaged nearly eight years. “We're trying to connect the dots here,” he said. “We know they're less likely to die, and health outcomes can be related to psychological factors.”
It is reported that in total the two studies examined answers provided by nearly 93,000 women, aged 50 to 79, who participated in the Women's Health Initiative study that began in 1991. Funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the survey tracks women's health, habits, beliefs and outcomes.
In response to questions asked when they enrolled, 34 percent of the women said they had not attended services in the previous month, 21 percent attended less than once a week, 30 percent attended weekly, and 14 percent more than once week. They also answered a raft of questions to judge their level of optimism and their susceptibility to depression.
Schnall said there was no “dose response” when it comes to frequency of attending religious services and mental health. But religious practice in general can encourage a “positive worldview, include calming rituals, and have other psychological and social benefits,” the report said.
The study found people who attend services regularly were 28 percent more likely to report having positive social support. Religious people may also be more likely to avoid smoking or drinking alcohol in excess, to visit physicians, and to engage in other healthy lifestyle behaviors, it said. When compared to other social groupings such as sporting events or playing cards, fellow religious congregants can provide closer confidants, Schnall said.
But a “relatively new thought in the field,” according to Schnall, called “social strain,” encompasses negative social support. The hypothesis is that, “though some studies have suggested that attending religious services is beneficial in a host of ways, there also comes with it a social strain.” Though there has been much discussion around this “new area of inquiry,” Schnall said, “I certainly believe, or to my knowledge, we are the first to look at this construct,” social strain. “We did not find that those who attend religious services where characterized by additional social strain,” Schnall said.