A new study shows that for women over the age of 50, attending religious services regularly can mean a more optimistic, less depressed, and less cynical outlook on life.
The finding of mood benefits associated with regular attendance of services is a follow-up to a 2008 report that found life expectancy increases when women routinely attend services.
The study is derived from data obtained by the Women’s Health Initiative observational study — a survey of 92,539 post-menopausal women over 50. The participants made up an ethnically, religiously and socioeconomically diverse group.
According to the new study, those who attend services frequently were 56 percent more likely to have an optimistic life outlook than those who don’t and were 27 percent less likely to be depressed.
Those who attended weekly were less likely to be characterized by cynical hostility, compared with those who did not report any religious service attendance.
“We looked at a number of psychological factors; optimism, depression, cynical hostility, and a number of subcategories and subscales involving social support and social strain,” said Dr. Eliezer Schnall, an associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, who headed the initiative.
“The link between religious activity and health is most evident in women, specifically older women,” he said.
The research focused on an important group, because “as they are living longer,” Schnall said, “seniors are a growing group, and women have longer lifespans than men.”
The study, funded by the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, broke down the idea of positive social support into subcategories, “unlike many other previous studies,” said Schnall.
Researchers studied the emotional and information support women receive from interacting with religious colleagues and officials.
Areas evaluated included assessment of social support provided when an individual visits with a priest or a rabbi to speak about difficulties. Tangible support, received when, for example someone from the congregation drives a participant to a doctor; affectionate support; and positive interaction.
“There’s evidence from other studies to suggest religious involvement may be particularly important in enhancing social interaction,” Schnall said.
Researchers also studied an emerging component of support, called “social strain” – an area that includes negative social support.
The hypothesis is that, “though some studies have suggested that attending religious services is beneficial in a host of ways, there also comes with it a social strain.”
Though there has been much discussion around this “new area of inquiry,” Schnall said, “I certainly believe, or to my knowledge, we are the first to look at this construct,” social strain.
The researchers identified social strain by asking questions like:
“We did not find that those who attend religious services where characterized by additional social strain,” Schnall said.
To identify optimism, he said, participants were asked to rate the following questions on a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree:
Optimism is “about perceived control … positive expectations … empowerment, a fighting spirit, lack of helplessness — those are general definitions,” Schnall said.
Schnall acknowledges that some will take issue with the survey findings.
“Someone who really wanted to take issue with the study” could say the results came out the way they did “maybe because optimists are drawn to believe in the divine.”
The study is published in the Journal of Religion and Health.
Source: Yeshiva University