A 14-Year Study Revealed How Much Your Mental Health Can Benefit From Spirituality

What do you believe in? It’s kind of a daunting question, isn’t it? Growing up, I was taught to have faith in the Catholic church, and God, but I think what people get wrong about spirituality is that being spiritual isn’t solely based on religion; it’s about believing in something greater than yourself. Somewhere out there, be it in the universe or above it, I trust that there exists a power bigger than me, bigger than life on Earth, and according to new research, that kind of spirituality affects mental health in a big way. Regardless of what it is, exactly, that you believe in, what really seems to matter most is that you find your faith — be it organized religion, your own prayer, or even a meditative practice on your commute home — and that you don’t stop believing in it.

See, religion implies that there is a community of people who invest their faith in an organized fashion. And while your spirituality might stem from organized religion, it also might not. It’s a complicated concept, I know, but to put it simply, Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, explains that spirituality is the sum of your individual core values and beliefs, and how you honor them both in your everyday life and how you connect with others. “Spirituality is often associated with many key aspects of how people relate to one another,” Glatter tells Elite Daily. “It involves the willingness to embrace others and to assist them in good times and bad times. It’s an openness that defines who you truly are.”

So, no, you don’t necessarily have to go to synagogue every week to be spiritual, but if practicing in a house of worship is what’s going to deepen your faith, then that’s beautiful, too. Either way, science says your mental health will benefit: According to a 14-year study, performed by a team of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School Of Public Health and The Human Flourishing Program, children and young adults who are brought up in religious and/or spiritual environments are less likely to become depressed, experiment with drugs, and engage in unsafe sexual behavior.

According to the study’s press release, Harvard researchers analyzed health data from mothers and their children who had respectively been enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II and the Growing Up Today Study. More than 5,000 children and young adults were evaluated over the course of roughly eight to 14 years in order to figure out how, exactly, a spiritual upbringing can affect mental health. The results, which have been published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, showed that spirituality “can powerfully affect health behaviors, mental health and overall happiness and well-being," per the press release.

And, as I’ve said time and again, statistics don’t lie, people. According to the researchers' findings, children and young adults who attended religious services weekly were 18 percent more likely to report feeling happier later on in life than those who didn't attend such services. What’s more, 29 percent were more likely to sign up for volunteer work, 33 percent were less likely to use drugs, and those who didn’t necessarily attend service but, instead, prayed at home or practiced meditation on a daily basis, were 16 percent "more likely to report higher happiness as young adults," according to the study's press release.

While it’s still unclear as to why, exactly, a spiritual upbringing affects mental health, Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D., the senior author of the study, tells Elite Daily over email that, from his understanding, it could be that, by experiencing a close connection to God (or any kind of spiritual figure or belief) through prayer or meditation, you gain a certain level of satisfaction and contentment in life that those who don’t pray or meditate, don't seem to experience. It basically comes down to having unconditional love for both yourself and others around you, which, Glatter, who wasn’t involved in the study, adds, “has a calming effect, leading to inner fulfillment that produces a sense of inner peace.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I totally want in on inner peace, especially considering the fact that I’m probably one of the most anxious people you’ll ever meet. And while, for me, I feel lucky to have had that religious faith to lean back on all my life, that isn’t to say you should follow a certain religion if organized faith isn’t your thing. If you don’t follow a scripture, prayer can be as simple as whispering a genuine “thank you” to the universe. You can show gratitude for all you’ve been given in life by jotting down a list in your journal. Meditation and yoga can also help to reinforce the practice of spirituality, Glatter suggests, as both of these practices “reinforce an inner sense of peace, acceptance, and tranquility that forms the foundation of the practice of these principles.”

Still, if you're unsure of how to begin your own spiritual journey, a solid place of grounding is to first and foremost believe in yourself. Have confidence in yourself, and in the fact that you know what's right and what's wrong. Once you're able to identify your core beliefs, then you can maybe start to think about deities. What matters is that you're able to have faith, and hold onto it, because clearly, even a little shred of belief goes a long way.