Carly was feeling overwhelmed with life. A budding entrepreneur, she was passionate about her business and truly believed in what she was doing. But fear often got the best of her. What if the business fails? she thought. What if no one wants to buy from me? What if I don’t make enough money this month to pay the bills?
Although she knew worrying wasn’t helpful, she couldn’t control it. And then she started praying. “One day I was feeling so stressed out, and I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I knew I should be grateful for what I had, but I just couldn’t feel that way. So I decided to pray. And after, I remember feeling much calmer. I was able to remind myself why I was doing this, and how I had been successful in the past. It was like I received a pep talk from someone I actually believed. Now I start my day off each morning with a prayer.”
For Carly and others, prayer plays an important role in subjective well-being. It may have the potential to influence everything from relationships to cardiovascular health. It may also impact functional connectivity in the brain and lead to improved self-control.
As of 2021, just 45% of U.S. adults pray daily, while 32% “say they seldom or never pray,” according to a Pew Research Center survey. Additionally, just 41% report that “religion is ‘very important’ in their lives,” according to the same report. And although not everyone prays, you can reap similar benefits from meditation.
People pray for myriad reasons, but the overall result is the same: Prayer and active engagement in religion may benefit your mental health, increase your sense of happiness and encourage participation in organizations and group activities, and increase life expectancy.
The power of prayer
First, a few disclaimers. Prayer alone will not solve all of your problems and not every prayer will be answered—and neither is the point here. Rather, according to the experts we spoke with, the act of praying itself can help us reap rewards for our subjective well-being—what positive psychologists call happiness. To put it simply, it doesn’t necessarily matter which faith we observe, but rather that we pray at all.
Biological and psychological mechanisms are at work when we pray. There is an entire field devoted to understanding what changes happen in our brains when we engage in religious experiences or practices—neurotheology, or the “neuroscience of religion.” And one pioneer in this field is Andrew Newberg, M.D., a professor at Thomas Jefferson University and the research director at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health.
“When prayer elicits feelings of love and compassion, there is a release of serotonin and dopamine,” Newberg says. Both of these neurotransmitters play a role in how you feel and act. Serotonin impacts your mood—though the theory that not having enough serotonin is linked to depression has recently been disputed—while dopamine is associated with reward and motivation.
A 2017 research study conducted by Newberg and his colleagues led to a plethora of questions after finding that, following a spiritual retreat, participants experienced “significant decreases in dopamine transporter binding in the basal ganglia and significant decreases in serotonin transporter binding in the midbrain.” Despite this, however, they still felt that their mood and stress levels had improved.
5 benefits of prayer
Religious engagement, as previously mentioned, can boost overall happiness, especially when we define happiness as having meaning in one’s life. Living a life of mindfulness and purpose “appears to be connected with greater engagement with life, which is linked to beneficial psychological outcomes,” according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Additionally, living a life of meaning is associated with improved mental well-being. Similarly, praying to a higher power is based on the belief that there is something greater than one’s everyday life and stressors. When praying, a person focuses on the bigger picture of what is important, which may in turn counter the taxing minutiae of everyday life.
“When people pray, they evoke a physiological response that’s opposite to the stress response: the relaxation response,” said Herbert Benson, M.D., founder of the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Because when you pray, you break the train of everyday thought through repetition of a word, sound, prayer or phrase.”
Prayer may influence numerous areas of our lives: It has the potential to help improve psychological well-being, serve as a coping mechanism, positively impact familial relationships and encourage self-regulation. The researchers we spoke with identified five key areas where prayer gives us a boost:
1. More connection
Connection is one of the most powerful contributors to happiness. After all, we are social beings. Prayer to a God who is viewed as caring can be seen as a conversation with an entity who possesses unconditional love for the person praying. It is a nurturing interaction with someone who cherishes you for who you are, flaws and all. And even when others in your life might let you down, your higher power is always present, always loving.
Blake Victor Kent, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at Westmont College, has done extensive research on spirituality, attachment to God and the impact of both on well-being. “Fundamentally, [prayer] is based on the assumption that God cares about you and is interested in you,” Kent says. “If [you believe] those two things are true, then prayer would have great mental health benefits because it means you’re not alone. Just as any close and caring relationship provides social support, so does a positive relationship with God.”
Researchers at Baylor University have explored the concept of secure attachment to God when it comes to psychological well-being. Attachment theory was born in the 1950s and looked at how children interacted with a parent, which led to the development of secure and insecure attachment styles.
“Our research shows that when people have a warm and secure attachment to God, prayer is associated with positive mental health outcomes,” Kent says. “But when the relationship is cold or distant, prayer is associated with negative mental health outcomes. Imagine the difference of praying to a God that loves and cares for you versus a God who is inconsistent, distant or even disappointed in or angry with you. The mental health result is not the same.”
2. Less depression
Research shows religion and spirituality may assist with the treatment or prevention of depression.
One study published in the Community Mental Health Journal found that peer-led spiritual interventions “[had] a significant impact in improving mental health and related psycho-social outcomes among a sample of Black residents living in [New York City]”—including “significantly reduced odds of moderate to severe depression.”
Additionally, a research review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that while 49% of studies reviewed found a significant association between “religiousness and spirituality” and decreases in depression, 59% of studies discussing religious struggle found that those engaged in religious struggle saw an increase in depression.
3. Less stress
While someone who is stressed for an extended period of time has increased levels of cortisol, which can have myriad negative effects on your well-being, the mere act of praying can help decrease that stress.
However, not every type of prayer may help. In a study published in the Journal of Religion and Health, researchers found that “prayer efficacy, prayers for support and one form of devotional prayer (asking God for forgiveness) all correlate with higher anxiety, while another form of devotional prayer (praise of God) and prayer expectancies are associated with lower anxiety in the American population.”
“Repetitive prayer—like the rosary—breaks the train of everyday thinking and evokes the relaxation response, which counteracts the harmful effects of stress,” Benson said.
4. Improved forgiveness and relationships
Religious individuals may be more willing to forgive. In a study published in the International Journal of Indian Psychology, individuals highly committed to religion were more willing to forgive others. A gender difference was also found, with women more willing to show forgiveness than men.
In addition to boosting one’s ability to forgive others, prayer can have a positive effect on relationships. In a study published in the Journal of Religion and Health, researchers found that “partner-focused petitionary prayer (PFPP) may help improve relationship quality as well as the efficiency of myocardial mechanisms in comparison with control conditions. Specifically, for participants engaging in PFPP, perceived positive qualities increased and their hearts displayed improved oxygen use and blood receipt without having to work as hard.”
5. Better self-control
Research shows prayer can also impact our behavior, especially our self-control. However, it may not be an immediate effect.
In a research review published in Current Opinion in Psychology, researchers found that “implicit and explicit activations of religious cognition” did little to improve self-control when measured in minutes and hours. However, engaging in religious activities—including prayer—“alongside with exposure to religious environments and institutions in the real world (e.g. religious schooling)”—has a positive effect on self-control when measured in weeks to years.
Not all prayer benefits your well-being
Not all research points to the benefits of prayer. In fact, as mentioned above, prayer has been shown to be associated with an increase in distress and even psychiatric disorders for some people.
So which is it? Is prayer helpful or hazardous? The key is looking at the intention associated with the prayer as well as the type of prayer.
“Both prayer and meditation can elicit the relaxation response—and thus effect positive physiological changes—but intention matters,” Benson said. “If you’re doing either activity mindlessly, you won’t derive any health benefits. But if you are engaging in these activities as originally intended, you can elicit the relaxation response and effect positive health outcomes.”
In analyzing types of prayer, one study published in the Journal of Religion and Health looked at five different prayer types: “adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication and reception.” Prayers of adoration are those that focus on “the worship of God,” without making requests or alluding to difficulties in life. Prayers of confession involve acknowledging wrongdoings and asking for forgiveness. Prayers of thanksgiving “are expressions of gratitude toward God, made in reference to specific positive life circumstances.” Prayers of supplication involve making requests in regard to the personal needs or the needs of others. Finally, prayers of reception are described as “contemplative or receptive prayer.”
Results of the study indicated that while thanksgiving, supplication and reception had a positive association with “disclosure to God,” only thanksgiving and supplication were significantly associated with well-being—however, in opposite directions, with the former positively associated and the latter negatively associated. Researchers also found that, “contrary to [their] hypothesis, disclosure to God did not mediate the relationship between thanksgiving prayer and well-being, but it mediated the relationship between supplication prayer and well-being. Thus, during confession and supplication prayer people disclose to God, which in turn strengthens their well-being.”
Focus on positive prayer to reap the benefits
“It depends how prayer is used,” Newberg says. “If it is used to foster anger, hatred or exclusivity, then the person will feel more negative, [have] greater anxiety and more stress…. But when prayer is focused on being more positive, open and loving, then you have an increase in positive benefits.”
Another study, this one published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that a centering meditation intervention—a practice based around centering prayer—improved the stress and mindfulness levels of participants.
If prayer or meditation is part of your common practice, keep it up. If it isn’t, consider finding an approach that works for you. Whether that’s prayer or just general meditation, connecting with your thoughts on a deeper level has myriad benefits. Just make sure you choose a practice that is focused on a positive experience and feels right for you.
Once you choose a path, don’t fixate on receiving the positive outcome of your practice. Instead, concentrate on enjoying the process. The positive feelings will follow.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine and was updated May 2023. Photo by Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock
Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., is a wealth psychologist helping entrepreneurs get out of their own way so they can have the successful businesses they want. Her newest book Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love is now available. How can you crush your inner critic? Learn more at www.ElizabethLombardo.com