Start practicing for a better, longer life

I recently was asked to speak at a conference at THR Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas on the subject of religion and health. In preparation I launched a review of a number of studies of “healthy religion” — that is, religious practices that lead to good mental and physical health. I have always believed that faith has positive effects on health, since body, soul and spirit are intimately related.

What emerged from my research took the form of “Seven Habits of Healthy Religion.” Habits, after all, are powerful because they naturally become a part of our daily life. Here they are:

1. Join. According to one study, people who never attended religious activities exhibited 1.87 times the risk of death compared with people who attend more than once a week. This resulted in a seven-year difference in life expectancy at age 20 between the non-attenders and the frequent attenders.

2. Pray. A 2005 study of intercessory prayer groups including Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist groups were not able to identify measurable differences in the healing of those prayed for; however, major cardiac events were reduced in the prayer group, as were death and readmission rates! Apparently, praying is good for you.

3. Give rather than take. The “Longevity Project” discovered that connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over one’s diet, exercise program or workload. People who help others are generally healthier.

4. Practice gratitude. In one study, people who wrote thank you letters to those who had been supportive of them had a large increase in overall happiness scores, reported fewer physical problems, better sleep and fewer symptoms of illness. Thankfulness is great medicine.

5. Treat your body like a temple (that’s what our mothers always told us). The life expectancy of Mormon men is almost 10 years longer than the general population. This is due to the Mormons’ emphasis on diet and eschewing tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs. The same effects were found among other religious groups who practiced the same healthy behaviors.

6. Believe in a loving God. Studies found that those who were angry at God or felt that God was punishing them had lower rates of physical recovery and higher mortality. One study said, “Our findings suggest that patients who indicate religious struggle during a spiritual history may be at particularly high risk for poor medical outcomes.” In addition, for those who saw God as punishing and less than loving, the world is often seen as a more dangerous place. They exhibited less hope and optimism about the future.

7. Develop the art of noticing. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of religion, wrote, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” Remember when you were a child — how the colors were richer, the fragrances more intense? You simply noticed more, and you took less for granted. One researcher suggested becoming a “scientist” — that is, practicing curiosity about the world around us. Take a walk in the woods. Pretend you’re a naturalist. Wherever you are, take the time to notice.

Good habits. Healthy habits. Try them — you’ll feel better.

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