People who are engaged in spiritual practices in their childhood and teens are more likely to be healthier in early adulthood, according to a Harvard study.
Compared to those with fewer or no spiritual habits, people who attended religious services, or were engaged in prayer or meditation in their childhood and teenage years reported better on scores of wellbeing such as life satisfaction and positivity, the study found.
They were also less likely to smoke, use illicit drugs, or contract a sexually transmitted infection.
“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,” said first author of the study Ying Chen in a Sept. 13 press release.
“These findings are important for both our understanding of health and our understanding of parenting practices.”
The study is published the November 2018 issue in the American Journal of Epidemiology and was first published online on Sept. 13.
Religious Upbringing, Prayer, Meditation
Researchers wanted to find out how the frequency of spiritual practice—religious services, prayer, or meditation—in their youth affects people’s physical health and mental well-being. For the study, researchers analyzed data from 5,000 children from two long-term studies. The children in the studies were followed by researchers anywhere between eight to 14 years.
Researchers controlled for multiple variables, including maternal “health, socioeconomic status, and histories of substance abuse or depressive symptoms.”
According to the results, those who had attended religious services at least once a week in their youth were 18 percent more likely to report feelings of happiness as young adults—aged 23 to 30. They were also 29 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities compared to those who never attended such services.
People who prayed or meditated daily in their youth were 16 percent more likely to report feelings of happiness as young adults, compared to those who had never prayed or meditated. They were also 30 percent less likely to have had sex at a young age, and as a result, were 40 percent less likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection.
A tentative association also was found between people who pray or meditate daily and greater life satisfaction and self-esteem, greater likelihood of being registered to vote, fewer depressive symptoms, and a lower risk of smoking.
“While decisions about religion are not shaped principally by health, for adolescents who already hold religious beliefs, encouraging service attendance and private practices may be meaningful avenues to protect against some of the dangers of adolescence, including depression, substance abuse, and risk-taking,” said Tyler VanderWeele, co-author of the study.
“In addition, these practices may positively contribute to happiness, volunteering, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and to forgiveness,” VanderWeele added.
Spiritual practices may be playing a positive role in various ways, the authors said in the study. This may include providing young people with “personal virtue to help maintain self-control” in the face of certain behaviors, and helping them actively cope with stress by encouraging the practice of forgiveness and meditation.
The authors also said that religious congregations or groups could help connect young people to networks in the community, as well as provide them with social support.
Limitations of the Harvard Study
The authors acknowledged a few limitations to the research. The study mainly focused on children of white mothers who all worked in the nursing field. As such, conclusions drawn from the study may not be suitable to generalize the larger population. A previous study by VanderWeele in 2016 had suggested that the effects of religious service attendance for adults are more pronounced in black populations, compared to white population.
Another limitation was that the study did not look at the influences of parents and peers on adolescents’ religious decisions.
Today, adults under 40 are less likely to be religiously affiliated, according to results from the Pew Research Center published in June.
“This is especially true in North America, wherein both the U.S. and Canada younger people are less likely to claim a religious identity,” the Pew report said.
The report also said that younger adults are generally less likely to engage in daily prayer.