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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Allen Grahn, 77, practices yoga at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Are you trying to be happier and healthier in 2019? Attending church could be a step in the right direction, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.

Actively religious adults, or people who affiliate with a faith group and attend religious services at least once a month, are more likely to be involved in their community and say they're very happy than those who are religiously inactive or unaffiliated, Pew reported, drawing on data from three cross-national surveys.

"More than one-third of actively religious U.S. adults (36 percent) describe themselves as very happy, compared with just a quarter of both inactive and unaffiliated Americans," researchers noted. Among the more than two dozen countries surveyed, "there is no country in which the data show that actives are significantly less happy than others."

Aaron Thorup, Pew Research Center.

Religious activity is also associated with some physical health benefits, like being less likely to smoke or drink, researchers noted. However, it doesn't seem to boost exercise frequency, reduce obesity rates or lead people to describes themselves as "very healthy."

Pew doesn't claim that religious activity causes these positive health outcomes, said Joey Marshall, a research associate for the organization. The analysis just points out that religiously active adults stand out from others on some measures of well-being.

"We can't prove that religion makes people happier or healthier. We can simply observe that people who are actively religious tend to be happier and, in some ways, they tend to be healthier," Marshall said.

Even this less dramatic conclusion matters at a time when religious practice is shifting around the world, he added.

"This report indicates that it's quite important for us to watch for changes around the world in the number of actively religious," Marshall said. Comparing those who are very committed to religious practice and the rest of the population, we see "big well-being gaps."

Religion and health

The relationship between religion and health has long been a source of fascination for researchers, faith leaders and everyday people. Famous scholars like Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche have tried to prove that religious practice holds consequences for mental health, but they were mostly hypothesizing instead of conducting rigorous surveys.

More recently, scholars have looked at religion's influence on physical health, using newer survey techniques to draw interesting conclusions.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Judy Patten practices yoga at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

"Many of the studies that have been published in the past 30 years have found that religious people tend to live longer, get sick less often and are better able to cope with stress," Pew reported.

These efforts were and are complicated by a number of factors, including the diversity of religious traditions. Some faith groups outlaw smoking and drinking, while others discourage hospital visits. Some traditions emphasize forgiveness, which could ease anxiety, while others emphasize the threat of eternal punishment.

Additionally, the actively religious "tend to be older, slightly less educated and more likely to be female and married" than their less active counterparts, demographic factors that may drive health-related outcomes, Pew reported.

Researchers kept this in mind while working on the new report and ran tests to confirm that results were still statistically significant after controlling for age, gender, education, income and marital status. While drafting the report, they discussed how to fairly and appropriately frame the findings, Marshall said.

"We wanted to treat the issue very carefully with an appropriate level of humility and communicate uncertainty as clearly as we can," he said.

Key takeaways

Pew's new analysis explores data from more than two dozens countries, drawing from surveys conducted by Pew, the World Values Survey Association and the International Social Survey Programme. It centers on eight health indicators, including exercise habits and self-assessed happiness levels.

One of Pew's goals was to show how religiously active adults compared with those who affiliate with a faith group but rarely attend religious services, Marshall said. Researchers found that, on a number of factors, religiously inactive adults are more like religious "nones" than regular churchgoers.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Eila Cagle, 92, says a prayer after leading a yoga class at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

For example, in Australia, only around one-third of the religiously inactive (33 percent) or unaffiliated (32 percent) describe themselves as "very happy," compared to 45 percent of religious active adults, Pew reported. Similar gaps exist in Japan, Uruguay, New Zealand and the U.S.

Religiously active adults also stand out in measures of civic engagement, which some scholars believe improves mental health. In many of the countries studied, the religiously active are more likely than other adults to be involved in nonreligious organizations and vote in national elections.

"In the U.S., 58 percent of actively religious adults say they are also active in at least one other (nonreligious) kind of volunteer organization," Pew reported. "Only half of all inactively religious adults (51 percent) and fewer than half of the unaffiliated (39 percent) say the same."

However, joining and then regularly attending a house of worship doesn't benefit people across the board. Religiously active adults are not more likely than others to exercise regularly or have a healthy weight.

"While actively religious people in many countries are less likely than others to say they drink frequently or ever smoke, they are not more likely to exercise regularly or to have a (body mass index) of less than 30," Pew reported. "If anything, people who are not actively religious are more likely to say they exercise several times per week."

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Martha Westman practices yoga at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

Some faith leaders are already working to improve these results, the Deseret News reported in 2017. For example, Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City offers a yoga-based exercise class around three times per week.

"Few theologians read the Bible with the lens of bodies. However, if you read it closely, I think it’s so clear that both God and Jesus deeply believe in bodies and think that bodies matter," noted Ellie Roscher, director of youth and story development for Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, in that article.

Next steps

As Marshall noted, Pew did not prove that religious practice can replace vaccines or pills as a guard against bad health. More research is needed to prove causation.

But researchers did reveal differences between people who regularly attend worship services and those who simply identify with a faith group on measures of well-being, which can guide future surveys and analyses.

"One of the key takeaways from the report is that it's not enough to simply identify as religious" if you want health benefits stemming from increased social connections, Marshall said.

Moving forward, those concerned with public health may want to focus more on actively religious adults instead of worrying about how many inactive adults become religious "nones," Pew reported. Trying to get people to worship services seems to be a better use of resources and energy than trying to ensure people still claim a religious identity.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Martha Westman practices yoga at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

"It may be that the future size of actively religious populations will be more consequential for the outcomes considered in this report," researchers noted.

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Pew's new research also holds lessons for faith leaders, who want to remain relevant amid demographic shifts in the U.S. and around the world. Some churches have tried to expand their reach by streaming worship services online, as Laura Turner, a Christian commentator, observed in a recent column for The New York Times.

"No longer will you have to leave your house to interact with fellow worshipers. You can do it all from the comfort, and isolation, of your own home," she wrote.

This approach may weaken a faith group's ability to strengthen social connections, which is one of the health-related benefits highlighted in Pew's study. As Turner put it, "We need one another."