Decades of data gathered in a single study released last fall shows that a relationship with God improves mental health and well-being, the study’s creators said Wednesday during 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 as well as more than 400 validated research studies. They found measurable proof that religion and spirituality provide positive benefits.
“Our relationship with God heals,” Radiant Foundation executive director Angela Redding said. “Every study that we’ve seen suggests that with a relationship with God, suicide rates go down, depression goes down, anxiety goes down.”
The IRF Summit’s organizers say the event is designed to grow a human rights movement in support of international religious freedom. Redding and other speakers told the summit that data shows there is a worldwide connection between spirituality and well-being.
Piles of research provide evidence of measurable benefits from religion and spirituality, said Ilana Ron-Levy, Gallup’s managing director of public sector consulting.
But Gallup surveys show that the number of Americans who say religion is an important part of their daily lives has fallen from 59% in 1999 to 46% in 2022.
So what’s going on here?
“When religion and spirituality provide quantifiable benefits to people’s well-being and mental health, why then are people turning away from religion?” Ron-Levy said.
Research on religion and mental health
Redding said additional research provides some answers. Religion and spirituality have a perception problem. Increasingly, religion is seen as divisive at the very time data shows it is healing.
The Radiant Foundation participated in an AI-enabled study of over 30 million pieces of content that found that 63% of faith-related content is rooted in controversy. An additional 11% was extreme in nature, including hate speech.
“So three-quarters of our media and entertainment diet is not representative of what we all know to be true about religion and faith, that it’s ennobling, it’s personal and it’s a lived experience,” Redding said at the IRF Summit. “Instead, what we see is political, it’s divisive and often sensationalized and stereotyped.”
Over half of survey respondents say the media actively ignores religion as an aspect of society and culture, she said, at a time when research suggests that 84% of humankind is affiliated with religion or spirituality.
“You wouldn’t know that by how people of faith and religion are portrayed in popular media,” Redding said.
Spirituality helps or reduces the rates of those struggling with mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, suicide and more, according to the data compiled by Gallup and the Radiant Foundation.
For example, the researchers identified 444 studies conducted since the early 1960s that empirically looked at the spirituality/well-being relationship, Ron-Levy said.
“What we saw is 61% of those studies saw this inverse relationship with depression and religiosity,” she said.
Only 6% of those studies suggested the opposite.
“This was another empirical suggestion and proof of this strong link between well-being and the mental health benefits of religiosity,” Ron-Levy said.
The research found that spirituality affects well-being in five key ways.
- First, it provides positive purpose and coping in life.
- Second, it facilitates faith-based social connections.
- Third, it fuels community and civic engagement.
- Fourth, it adds structural stability.
- And fifth, it can enhance a workplace seeking to support holistic well-being for employees.
Redding said Skylight, a well-being app developed by the Radiant Foundation, has provided additional data.
“We’ve recorded almost 10 million spiritual practices completed with 4 million unique users,” she said. “And we’ve seen anxiety scores go down and sleep scores go up.”
She said the data showed both correlation and causation.
“Our global community is pleading for shared healing,” Redding said, “and we here have the power to change the narrative, to support those who elevate all faiths in all cultures. My call to action for us all today is, let’s partner to bring peace, human fraternity and tolerance to the world.”
Bring people together and listen
Deseret News executive editor Doug Wilks moderated a panel with three influential leaders and asked them to react to the data.
“It reaffirms my belief that faith is something that you can hang on to through tough times, and it’s going to help you,” said Anila Ali, president and CEO of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council.
Ali also suggested that adults should help young Americans have more conversations.
“They’re not losing faith, they’re questioning it,” she said. “And I feel that we can be better role models and come together and show them religion does not divide, religion finds solutions.”
Rabbi Diana Gerson, who also found the study’s findings affirming, said adults need to listen twice as much as they talk during discussions with young people. She recalled asking her grandmother why she kept ham on a separate shelf on a paper plate in her house if she kept kosher.
“Because the neighbor kids like to have ham and cheese sandwiches and I want them to feel comfortable at my table,” her grandmother said.
“And I think about that,” said Rabbi Gerson, a member of the New York Board of Rabbis. “Can we sit at each other’s table? Can we break bread together? So when (young people) come to us and they’re seeking something, listen.”
Nicole Stirling said she felt personal assistance in her own well-being through her spirituality when her daughter struggled with mental health issues.
“I wanted her to be able to find some relief and as I looked around to the different needs throughout the world, I saw a common pattern and theme that those who were focused on a power higher than themselves felt a sense of community and were able to link arms together and to really accelerate the good that they can do,” said Stirling, vice president, chief relations officer and founding board member of the Stirling Foundation.
She said the Gallup/Radiant study showed that when people share their spirituality and beliefs, the whole community is leavened.
“So if I have anything profound to leave with you, it’s that faith is the core of my existence. It’s why I do what I do. It’s why I spend the time that I do helping others.”