Spirituality in Early Life, Connected to Better Health Later On

September 17, 2018

3 min read

Being religiously observant as a child and teenager can make you a healthier adult, according to a new study from Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health. Ying Chen, the lead author, said that people who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth reported greater life satisfaction and a more positive attitude in their 20s.

They were also less likely to subsequently have depressive symptoms, smoke, use illicit drugs or contract a sexually transmitted infection than people raised with less-regular or no spiritual habits. This is an important benefit, as adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the attraction of pursuing thrill-seeking behaviors.

“These findings are important for both our understanding of health and our understanding of parenting practices,” said Chen, who recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the 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,” said Chen, who is now a research scientist with the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science’s Human Flourishing Program. The study was published online in the
American Journal of Epidemiology.

Previous studies have linked adults’ religious involvement to better health and well-being outcomes, including lower risk of premature death, but they did not look at the effects on children and teens.

For the study, the team examined health data from mothers in the Nurses’ Health Study II and their children in the Growing Up Today Study. The sample included more than 5,000 American youngsters who were followed for between eight and 14 years, while controlling for many variables such as the mother’s health, socioeconomic status, and history of substance abuse or depressive symptoms; this made it possible to isolate the effect of a religious upbringing.

The results showed that people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults than those who never attended services. They were also 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33% less likely to use illicit drugs.

Those who prayed or meditated at least daily while growing up were 16% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults, 30% 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,” said senior author Tyler VanderWeele.

The authors noted that unlike Western Europe, “America is highly religious… It is a common practice for parents to raise their children based on their own religious beliefs. There has, however, been a continuing decline in religiosity for decades, for the most part due to lower rates in younger generations. Despite the general trends of declining religious participation, there is still considerable intergenerational religious continuity in the US.”

For instance, recent estimates of the rates of intergenerational transmission of religious affiliation in the US were 82% in Jews, 85% in Muslims, 62% in Evangelical Protestants and 43% in Catholics; 59% of parents who attended religious services at least weekly had children who reported frequent service attendance.

The authors concluded that religious participation in adulthood is, in many cases, a function of religious upbringing in early life. “Intergenerational transmission of religious values and practices occurs largely through parental modeling and is likely facilitated by close parent-child relationships. Although 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 of development and support, possibly leading to better health and well-being.”

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