Spirituality and health: What’s the evidence and what’s needed?

Abstract

In this article, we familiarize readers with some recent empirical evidence about possible associations between religious and/or spiritual (RS) factors and health outcomes. In considering this evidence, we believe a healthy skepticism is in order. One needs to remain open to the possibility that RS-related beliefs and behaviors may influence health, yet one needs empirical evidence based on well-controlled studies that support these claims and conclusions. We hope to introduce the dismissing critic to suggestive data that may create tempered doubt and to introduce the uncritical advocate to issues and concerns that will encourage greater modesty in the making of claims and drawing of conclusions. We comment on the following questions: Do specific RS factors influence health outcomes? What possible mechanisms might explain a relation, if one exists? Are there any implications for health professionals at this point in time ? Recommendations concern the need to improve research designs and measurement strategies and to clarify conceptualizations of RS factors. RS factors appear to be associated with physical and overall health, but the relation appears far more complex and modest than some contend. Which specific RS factors enhance or endanger health and well-being remains unclear.

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Correspondence to Carl E. Thoresen Ph.D..

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Preparation of this article was supported, in part, by grants to Carl E. Thoresen from the Fetzer Institute, John Templeton Foundation, and from participation on the Spirituality, Religiousness and Health: State of the Science Panel, Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR/NIH). Work by Alex H. S. Harris was partially supported by a Stanford Presidential Graduate Fellowship.

Portions of this article were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee (2000). Part of this article will appear in the forthcoming Handbook of Health Psychology (Vol. 2), edited by J. Raczynski, L. L. Leviton, and L. Bradley (American Psychological Association), and do appear in Faith and Healing: Psychological Perspectives, edited by T. Plante and A. Sherman (Guilford, 2001). The major contributions of several researchers in this area are gratefully acknowledged, including Harold Koenig, David Larson, Michael McCullough, William R. Miller, Ken Pargament, and Everett Worthington, Jr.

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Thoresen, C.E., Harris, A.H.S. Spirituality and health: What’s the evidence and what’s needed?. ann. behav. med. 24, 3–13 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1207/S15324796ABM2401_02

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Keywords

  • Behavioral Medicine
  • Religious Coping
  • Religious Service
  • Religious Involvement
  • Religious Attendance