Do people who are religious or who have a nonreligious set of spiritual beliefs that guide them in their daily life have an advantage over those who don’t when it comes to mental and physical well-being? A growing body of research suggests that religion and spirituality may help some people better cope with illness, depression and stress.

Although religion and spirituality may not cure illness, they can have a positive effect on your health. Several medical studies show a connection between religious beliefs or practices and a decreased risk of self-destructive behaviors such as smoking, substance abuse and suicide. Other studies suggest that people who have regular religious practices tend to live longer and may be better able to enjoy life despite health issues like chronic pain.

A complex subject

The subject of spirituality is challenging for researchers when they attempt to frame it in scientific terms. One reason is that there's no widely accepted definition of spirituality. Some people associate spirituality strictly with religious beliefs, while others associate it with nature, art, meditation or inner peace or harmony.

Yet, some researchers think that measuring spirituality with questions about peacefulness, harmony and well-being is meaningless since it results in spirituality being simply defined as good mental health, so they instead prefer to define spirituality in terms of religious practices and beliefs.

As one researcher puts it, "Spirituality is an important, multidimensional aspect of the human experience that is difficult to fully understand or measure using the scientific method, yet convincing evidence in the medical literature supports its beneficial role in the practice of medicine." The Association of American Medical Colleges defines spirituality broadly: "Spirituality is recognized as a factor that contributes to health in many persons. The concept of spirituality is found in all cultures and societies. It is expressed in an individual's search for ultimate meaning through participation in religion and/or belief in God, family, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, and the arts."

Source: Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 27 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 27 Jul 2013