Participating in spiritual practices during childhood and adolescence may be a protective factor for a range of health and well-being outcomes in early adulthood, according to a study from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Researchers found that people who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth reported greater life satisfaction and positivity in their 20s – and were less likely to subsequently have depressive symptoms, smoke, use illicit drugs, or have a sexually transmitted infection – than people raised with less regular spiritual habits.
“These findings are important for both our understanding of health and our understanding of parenting practices,” said first author Ying Chen, who recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Chan School. “Many children are raised religiously, and our study shows that this can powerfully affect their health behaviours, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”
Previous studies have linked adults’ religious involvement to better health and well-being outcomes, including lower risk of premature death.
For this study, Chen and senior author Tyler VanderWeele, John L Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb professor of epidemiology, analysed health data from mothers in the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHSII) and their children in the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS). The sample included more than 5,000 youth who were followed for between 8–14 years. The researchers controlled for many variables such as maternal health, socioeconomic status, and history of substance abuse or depressive symptoms, to try to isolate the effect of religious upbringing.
The results showed that people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults (ages 23–30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33% less likely to use illicit drugs.
Those who prayed or meditated at least daily while growing up were 16% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults, 30% less likely to have started having sex at a young age, and 40% less likely to have a sexually transmitted infection compared to those who never prayed or meditated.
“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. In addition, these practices may positively contribute to happiness, volunteering, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and to forgiveness,” said VanderWeele.
One limitation of the study is that it consisted mainly of children of white females of relatively high family socioeconomic status, and therefore might not be generalizable to a broader population, though prior research by VanderWeele suggested the effects of religious service attendance for adults may be even larger for black versus white populations. Another limitation was that the study did not look at the influences of parents and peers on adolescents’ religious decisions.
While previous studies of adult populations have found religious service attendance to have a greater association with better health and well-being than prayer or meditation, the current study of adolescents found communal and private spiritual practices to be of roughly similar benefit.
Chen is now a research scientist with the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science’s Human Flourishing Programme, which VanderWeele directs.
In the present study, we prospectively examined the associations of religious involvement in adolescence (including religious service attendance and prayer or meditation) with a wide array of psychological well-being, mental health, health behavior, physical health, and character strength outcomes in young adulthood. Longitudinal data from the Growing Up Today Study were analyzed using generalized estimating equations. Sample sizes ranged from 5,681 to 7,458, depending on outcome; the mean baseline age was 14.74 years, and there were 8–14 years of follow-up (1999 to either 2007, 2010, or 2013). Bonferroni correction was used to correct for multiple testing. All models were controlled for sociodemographic characteristics, maternal health, and prior values of the outcome variables whenever data were available. 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. Analyses of prayer or meditation yielded similar results. Although decisions about religion are not shaped principally by health, encouraging service attendance and private practices in adolescents who already hold religious beliefs may be meaningful avenues of development and support, possibly leading to better health and well-being.
Ying Chen, Tyler J VanderWeele