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Culture & Religion

Growing up religious boosts mental and physical health, says Harvard

More than 5,000 teens were involved in this longitudinal study.

Nina Strehl / Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • New research from Harvard shows that teens that have a religious or spiritual practice are happier and healthier in their 20s.
  • Those studied had fewer sexually transmitted diseases and smoked less often.
  • Meditation and prayer appears to have similar positive effects.

In a recent interview with Michelle LeClair, a former high-ranking Scientologist and author of the memoir Perfectly Clear: Escaping Scientology and Fighting for the Woman I Love, told me that she was pulled into the religion by her mother, who, going through her fourth divorce and moving to Los Angeles, was searching for answers. An official in the church picked up on her mother’s distress, which translated to LeClair’s own existential dilemma.

She was lost, she said — our interview will covered in depth next week — and Scientology offered direction. That route did not turn out well, given her forced marriage to a man she did not love, resulting in physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. LeClair admitted to church officials early on that she was attracted to women, a sin according to ol’ L. Ron and acolytes. She lived with that for decades before owning her sexuality.

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For LeClair, religion did not provide well-being. Context matters, however. A recent study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology on September 10, claims that religion, prayer, and meditation potentially help youth live happier and healthier lives.

Compared with no attendance, at least weekly attendance of religious services was associated with greater life satisfaction and positive affect, a number of character strengths, lower probabilities of marijuana use and early sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners.


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