Believing in God is good for your health. Well, kind of. Researchers found that religiousness correlated with improved health, particularly mental health.
Brick Johnstone from Missouri University and his colleagues at MU, Samuel Merritt University in Pennsylvania, and Via Cristi Hospital in Kansas studied the results of three studies. The researchers attempted to discover a correlation between a participant's self-reported mental and physical health, personality traits and their spirituality. They found that there was indeed a correlation between mental health and spirituality. The type of religion in which that the participant believed did not seem to matter.
The surveys interviewed 160 people. Of that group, 40 respondents were Buddhist, 41 were Catholic, 22 were Jewish, 26 were Muslim, and 31 were Protestant. Across all faiths, those who considered themselves more spiritual had better mental health. Specifically, those who were more religious were less likely to be neurotic (a negative personality trait, as defined by the researchers) and were more extroverted (a positive personality trait).
Interestingly, personality traits that researchers associated with religion did not indicate increased mental health on their own. Only one spiritual trait was correlated with higher mental health – forgiveness. While many will note that people do not need to be religious in order to be forgiving, it is a trait that is stressed in many religions.
"Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions," Daniel Cohen, another author on the study, said in a statement. "Spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress."
The study has its limitations, chief among them were the small sample size, which was overwhelmingly Christian, and the fact that personality traits and assessments of physical and mental health were self-reported. The study also did not compare participants' mental health with people who identified as atheists or who considered themselves spiritual without ascribing to a particular religion.
However, the researchers say that spirituality benefits not just an individual's mental health state but the world. Cohen says that the selflessness that is preached in many religions help to foster a global society marked with peace and cooperation.