Participating in spiritual practices during childhood and adolescence may help buffer against a number of negative health outcomes in early adulthood, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth report greater life satisfaction and positivity in their 20s. They were also less likely to develop depressive symptoms, smoke, use illicit drugs, or have a sexually transmitted infection compared to those 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 Dr. 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 behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”
Previous research has suggested a link between adults’ religious involvement and better health and well-being outcomes, including a lower risk of premature death.
For the new study, Chen and senior author Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology, analyzed 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 tracked for 8 to 14 years. The researchers controlled for many variables such as maternal health, socioeconomic status, and history of substance abuse or depressive symptoms, to separate the specific factor of religious upbringing.
The findings reveal that people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18 percent more likely to report greater happiness as young adults (ages 23-30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33 percent less likely to use illicit drugs.
Participants who prayed or meditated at least daily while growing up were 16 percent more likely to report greater happiness as young adults, 30 percent 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,” VanderWeele said.
One study limitation is that it primarily tracked children of white females of relatively high family socioeconomic status, and therefore might not be generalizable to a broader population, though previous 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 investigate the influences of parents and peers on adolescents’ religious decisions.
While previous research on adult populations have found religious service attendance tends 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.