A new study shows that attending religious services regularly can mean a more optimistic, less depressed, and less cynical outlook on life.
In a follow-up to its 2008 report that found that attending services increases life expectancy, the Women’s Health Initiative observational study based this report on a survey of 92,539 post-menopausal women over 50. The participants made up an ethnically, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse group.
According to the report, to be published this week in the Journal of Religion and Health, those who attend services frequently were 56% more likely to have an optimistic life outlook than those who don’t and were 27% less likely to be depressed. Those who attended weekly were less likely to be characterized by cynical hostility, compared with those who did not report any religious service attendance.
“We looked at a number of psychological factors; optimism, depression, cynical hostility, and a number of subcategories and subscales involving social support and social strain,” said Eliezer Schnall an associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, who headed the initiative.
“The link between religious activity and health is most evident in women, specifically older women,” he said.
The research focused on an important group, because “as they are living longer,” Schnall said, “seniors are a growing group, and women have longer lifespans than men.”
The study, funded by the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “unlike many other previous studies,” said Schnall, broke down the idea of positive social support into subcategories.
Emotional support and informational support, such as sitting down with a priest or a rabbi to speak about difficulties; tangible support, like someone driving a participant to a doctor; affectionate support; and positive interaction were all examined in the initiative.
“There’s evidence from other studies to suggest religious involvement may be particularly important in enhancing social interaction,” 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.
The researchers identified social strain by asking questions like:
– “Of the people that are important to you, how many get on your nerves?”
– “Of the people who are important to you, how many ask too much of you?
– And, “of the people who are important to you, how many try to get you to do things that you do not want to do?”
“We did not find that those who attend religious services where characterized by additional social strain,” Schnall said.
To identify optimism, he said, participants were asked to rated the following questions on a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree:
– “In unclear times I usually expect the best,”
– “If something can go wrong for me, it will,”
– “I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”
Optimism is “about perceived control … positive expectations … empowerment, a fighting spirit, lack of helplessness – those are general definitions,” Schnall said.
He conceded people could take a different message from the survey’s results. “Someone who really wanted to take issue with the study” could say the results came out the way they did “maybe because optimists are drawn to believe in the divine.”