A man praying on the floor of a religious church

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Does religion actually make people happier? What are the drawbacks of religion? What effects do rituals have on people?

Religious and spiritual practices are often credited with making people happier and healthier. But research suggests that religious practices have some potential drawbacks.

Continue reading to learn the psychology of religion, backed by research.

How Religious or Spiritual Practices Affect People

Studies on the psychology of religion have repeatedly found that people who belong to a religious group or who cultivate spiritual practices are happier and healthier than those who don’t. They tend to have lower rates of depression and anxiety, better resilience against stress, higher civic engagement, healthier habits, and longer lifespans. Researchers are increasingly interested in exactly how religious practices and beliefs lead to healthier, happier, and more social lives. 

Does Religion Improve Well-Being?

Many people define “religion” and “spirituality” differently, but overall, experts say that religion consists of rules and rituals that are organized around a group’s beliefs, while spirituality is a more individual search for meaning and purpose. Both approaches bring benefits, and though researchers haven’t yet mapped out the exact mechanisms behind the phenomena, they’ve developed a few hypotheses.

  • They note, to start, that congregations or communities where people practice their spiritual beliefs can become a source of social connection, which boosts happiness and well-being.
  • Organized religions tend to discourage unhealthy lifestyle choices, like drinking alcohol or smoking.
  • Experts also note that people who actively practice their religious and spiritual beliefs can manage stress better, possibly because these beliefs lead people to find greater meaning in their experiences.
  • Studies have found that people who attend church regularly have fewer biomarkers of stress and that social workers who practice spirituality suffer from less post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 
  • Observers theorize that spiritual beliefs that focus on forgiveness can especially help protect people against the effects of stress, as it can encourage people to let go of anger. 

The Effects of Rituals

Research suggests the rituals associated with religious practices may be an important factor in helping people manage stress because they provide structure to cope with difficult experiences, like the death of a loved one. Experts say that rituals play a powerful role in helping us find meaning and order in our lives.

Some researchers even contend that it’s not so much having religious beliefs but putting them into practice that links religion to better longevity, health, and happiness. They argue that rituals act as reminders of beliefs, thus strengthening them and influencing what people think about and how they feel.

How Might Religion Harm Well-Being?

Research suggests that religious practices have some potential drawbacks. For example, some people develop the tendency to engage in “spiritual bypassing”: using spiritual beliefs to avoid complex emotions or conflicts.

In addition, being part of some religious communities seems to reduce social trust. Some experts say placing too much emphasis on building bonds within a religious group hurts people’s ability to trust or feel solidarity with people outside that community. 

Some researchers argue that economic conditions contribute to the prevalence of religious belief: They’ve observed that the relationship between religious beliefs and greater well-being seems strongest among people who live under challenging conditions such as poverty, hunger, and fear. This might suggest that people tend to turn to religion to provide the sense of security that others experience in more prosperous, egalitarian, and trusting societies.

Is Religion Truly the Cause of Benefits?

While people who regularly attend religious services are more likely to say they’re satisfied with the way things are going in their lives, statisticians often say that correlation is not causation: It’s hard to know if attending religious services causes people to be more satisfied with their lives, or if it’s people who are more satisfied with their lives that typically attend religious services.

The Psychology of Religion: Is It Helpful or Harmful?

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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