About two in five Americans report going to worship services on a weekly basis. But church isn’t always the easiest commitment to make on an early Sunday morning. While church offers obvious spiritual benefits, did you know studies have found it’s good for your physical and mental health too? Here are five surprising benefits of attending church.
1. Going to church boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure and helps you live longer.
Tyler J. VanderWeele, an epidemiologist with the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted a study of regular church-goers over two decades with his colleagues. He found that people who attend religious services at least once a week enjoy better blood pressure, healthier cardiovascular, immune and endocrine functions and less coronary artery disease than those who don’t attend at all. In addition, the risk of dying is 20 to 30 percent less in the 10 and a half years after they begin going to church regularly, the study found. “Something about the communal religious experience and participation matters,” as opposed to private spirituality or practice, VanderWeele wrote in USA Today. “Something powerful appears to take place there, and enhances health.”
2. Frequent churchgoers have a larger social circle and with more kinds of support than people who don’t attend.
That’s according to a study of attendees in North Carolina. Strong friendships and social support have a direct correlation with better health, writes T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist who has studied evangelical churches. And the support provided by church can be both emotional and practical. In a New York Times story, Luhrmann describes what happened at a weekly Bible study she attended: “One evening, a young woman in a group I joined began to cry. Her dentist had told her that she needed a $1,500 procedure, and she didn’t have the money,” she writes. “To my amazement, our small group—most of them students—simply covered the cost, by anonymous donation.”
3. People who go to services regularly are less likely to be depressed.
A survey of nearly 100,000 women over 50 who attended religious services found they were 56 percent more likely to have a positive outlook on life and 27 percent less likely to be depressed, according to a study in the Journal of Religion and Health. Eliezer Schnall, the study’s author and an associate professor at Yeshiva University in New York, writes that regular religious practice can help foster a “positive worldview, include calming rituals, and have other psychological and social benefits.” A separate study found regular churchgoers were five times less likely to commit suicide.
4. Teens who regularly attend church do better in school.
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Researchers at the University of Iowa found that the GPA of teens who attend services on a weekly basis was .144 higher than those who never attended services, according to the study published in Sociological Quarterly. They studied students from seventh grade to seniors in high school.
The study identified several few factors that account for the academic boost, according to LiveScience. Churchgoing teens encounter adults of various ages who serve as role models and are more likely to talk with their friends’ parents. They also strike up friendships with kids who share similar values and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities. But this only account for about half the effect.
“Surprisingly, the importance of religion to teens had very little impact on their educational outcomes,” Jennifer Glanville, a University of Iowa sociologist, noted. “That suggests that the act of attending church—the structure and the social aspects associated with it—could be more important to educational outcomes than the actual religion.”
5. Churchgoers are happier with their lives overall.
One study found that one-third of people who went to church every week and reported having close friends there said they were “extremely satisfied” with their lives, compared with just 19 percent of those who attended but didn’t enjoy the same tight circle. The key is building an intimate cluster of like-minded people, according to Chaeyoon Lim, a sociology professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the study’s author.
“We think it has something to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis, together as a group and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group,” Lim told LiveScience. “At the same time, they share a certain social identity, a sense of belonging to a moral faith community. The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.” The findings were uniform across Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons and Jewish believers who attended regular services.
Bottom line: Church is good for you in a lot of ways. As VanderWeele told the Washington Post, “Service attendance is increasing social support. Through social norms, it’s also decreasing the likelihood of smoking. Perhaps through some of the messages of hope, it’s decreasing depressive symptoms. Perhaps self-discipline, a sense of meaning or purpose in life…”