A relationship with God can improve mental health and well-being, the creators of a study released last fall that collected decades of data said Wednesday at the fourth annual International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C.
Gallup and the Radiant Foundation sifted through decades of Gallup surveys of tens of thousands of people in 140 countries and more than 400 validated studies. They found measurable evidence that religion and spirituality can have positive benefits.
“We are healed in our relationship with God,” said Angela Redding, executive director of the Radiant Foundation. “Every study we’ve seen shows that with a relationship with God, suicide rates go down, depression, anxiety go down.”
Organizers of the IRF summit said the event aimed to develop the human rights movement and support international religious freedom. Redding and other speakers at the summit said data showed a global link between spirituality and happiness.
Ilana Ron-Levy, managing director of public sector consulting at Gallup, said numerous studies provide evidence of the measurable benefits of religion and spirituality.
However, a Gallup survey shows that the number of Americans who believe that religion is an important part of daily life has dropped from 59% in 1999 to 46% in 2022.
So what’s going on?
“Why would people turn away from religion when religion and spirituality provide quantifiable benefits to people’s well-being and mental health?” Ron-Levy said.
Religion and Mental Health Research
Redding said additional research provides some answers. Religion and spirituality have a perception problem. While data shows religion is healing, religion is increasingly seen as divisive.
The Radiant Foundation participated in an artificial intelligence study of more than 30 million pieces of content and found that 63% of faith-related content was controversial. Another 11% were of an extreme nature and included hate speech.
“So three-quarters of our media and entertainment diet does not represent what we know to be true about religion and faith, which is that it is noble, it is personal, it is a lived experience,” Redding told the IRF said at the summit. “Instead, what we see is political, divisive and often sensationalist and stereotypical.”
She said more than half of those surveyed said the media actively ignores religion as an aspect of society and culture, while research shows that 84 per cent of humans have a connection to religion or spirituality.
“You wouldn’t know it by how popular media portrays people of faith and religion,” Redding said.
According to data compiled by Gallup and the Radiant Foundation, spirituality can help or reduce the rates of people struggling with mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and suicide.
For example, Ron-Levy said the researchers identified 444 studies conducted since the early 1960s that empirically examined the spirituality/well-being relationship.
“We found that 61 percent of studies found an inverse relationship between depression and religiosity,” she said.
Only 6% of the studies suggested the opposite.
“This is yet another empirical suggestion that there is a strong link between well-being and the mental health benefits of religious belief,” Ron-Levy said.
Research has found that spirituality affects happiness in five key ways.
- First, it provides positive life goals and ways to cope.
- Second, it promotes social connections based on faith.
- Third, it promotes community and civic engagement.
- Fourth, it increases structural stability.
- Fifth, it can enhance the workplace and support the overall well-being of employees.
Skylight, a health app developed by the Radiant Foundation, provides more data, Redding said.
“We have recorded nearly 10 million spiritual practices completed by 4 million unique users,” she said. “We’ve seen anxiety scores go down and sleep scores go up.”
The data shows correlation and causation, she said.
“Our global community is calling to heal together,” said Redding. “We have the power to change the narrative and support those who uplift people of all faiths in all cultures. My call to action to all of us today is, let’s work together to help Bringing peace, human fraternity and tolerance to the world.”
Bring people together to listen
Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilkes moderated a panel of three influential leaders and asked them to react to the data.
“It reaffirms my belief that faith is something you can hold on to during hard times and that it will help you,” said Anila Ali, president and CEO of the American Council for the Empowerment of Muslim and Interfaith Women. “
Ali also suggested that adults should help young Americans have more conversations.
“Instead of losing confidence, they are questioning confidence,” she said. “I feel like we can be better role models and come together and show them that religion doesn’t divide, religion finds solutions.”
Rabbi Diana Gerson agrees that the study’s findings are positive, saying that adults need to listen twice as much as they speak when discussing with young people. She remembers asking her grandmother why, if she kept kosher, she kept ham on a separate shelf from paper plates at home.
“Because the neighborhood kids love to eat ham and cheese sandwiches, I want them to feel comfortable at my dining room table,” her grandmother said.
“I’m thinking about that,” said Rabbi Gerson, a member of the New York Rabbinical Council. “Can we sit at each other’s tables? Can we break bread together? So when (young people) come to us looking for something, please listen.”
Nicole Sterling said that when her daughter struggled with mental health issues, she felt personally aided in her well-being through her spirituality.
“I hope she can find some relief, and as I look around the world at different needs, I see a common pattern and theme, which is that those who are focused on a power higher than themselves feel a sense of community and are able to Sterling, vice president, chief relations officer and founding board member of the Lin Foundation, said:
Gallup/Radiant research shows that when people share their spirituality and faith, the entire community is impacted, she said.
“So, if I have anything profound to leave you with, it’s that faith is at the core of my being. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I spend my time helping others.”