Growing up religious boosts mental and physical health, says Harvard

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

  • 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.

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.

Jewish people pray in the Old City of eastern Jerusalem, September 25, 2018. Photo credit: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The researchers, Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele, say they saw similar results with prayer and meditation. Longitudinal data from more than 5,000 children (mean average of over fourteen years of age) took part in the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS); follow-ups occurred between eight and 14 years after the initial questionnaires. Those involved in religious activities self-report being more mentally and emotionally fit.

The authors point to previous studies that claim the religious to be healthier and happier, citing research connecting religious service and lower mortality risk, greater psychological being, reduced mental illness, and a general healthier lifestyle. They emphasize teachings that honor the body: when treated with high regard, people tend to take care of themselves better. Compare this to LeClair, who told me that Scientology teaches the body is ripe for defilement, which is why her lesbianism (and sexuality in general) is treated with disdain.

Chen believes this research shows that children raised with a religious or spiritual practice can potentially fare better as they age. "These findings are important for both our understanding of health and our understanding of parenting practices," he told Forbes. "Many children are raised religiously, and our study shows that this can powerfully affect their health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being."

One reason may be the tamping down of the "I," with a focus on community over self. This fits in well with research on meditation, which shows a deactivation of the areas of the brain concerned with the individual. The Harvard study shows that children engaging in religious or spiritual practices process emotions better, have a greater sense of mission, volunteer more often, and are able to forgive quicker than those with no such training. The authors continue,

It was also possibly associated with greater life satisfaction and self-esteem, greater likelihood of being registered to vote, fewer depressive symptoms, and a lower risk of cigarette smoking.

Since adolescence is a time of thrill seeking, the authors believe a religious or spiritual practice might empower them with a sense of discipline. Fewer risky sexual encounters result in less sexually transmitted diseases, for example. A reduction in cigarette smoking has obvious health benefits. And a sense of mission has long been correlated with a deceased risk for depression.

Spiritual practices serve as models for all of these behaviors. This isn't to claim that atheists and agnostics cannot fare equally well, though. A mission does not require a metaphysical component. Plenty of secular Buddhists, for example, live quite well-adjusted lives, which is why the authors including meditation in this study matters.

Again, context matters. If the religion is oppressive, the opposite is likely to occur. Discipline by oppression often ends in disaster, as LeClair told me during our talk. This said, we shouldn't lump all religions together. Even sects within certain groups might produce different results. When considering practices such as prayer and meditation — time we spend mulling over the bigger picture, the dissolution of the "I" in a larger context — it is not surprising that children would grow up to be resilient, determined, and, yes, happier adults.

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