Recent research suggests that there are health benefits associated with prayer. There are many different types of prayer and indeed many different techniques for praying. In general it is understood as being some form of communication with the sacred or a supreme being. Various religious and spiritual traditions encourage prayer and incorporate rituals in which it is formally facilitated. It may seem an unusual area for scientists to study but the world of prayer and spirituality is an area of research that is experiencing great growth. Largely this is due to a shift in focus from illness to wellness. Resilience studies have concentrated on survivors – people who have survived great crises in their lives but have thrived in spite of this adversity. In many of these case studies prayer has been found to have been a great source of strength or consolation for such people. These people suffered but also managed to keep their health and bounce back again.
In recent years I have deliberately taken an interest in people who have suffered great torment but managed to stay healthy. I have been curious to know how they kept themselves strong. I have been privileged to have had such conversations. There is so much to learn from these people. They seem blessed with high levels of resilience. Whether this is learned or genetic is still being explored by the scientists but some people seem to have a greater toolbox when it comes to crisis. They have resources deep within themselves and know how to tap into them when under pressure. Although prayer does not turn up every time in these conversations it is a common denominator for many survivors. I certainly have met many people who mention prayer as a pillar of inner-strength.
I can understand what psychological benefits there may be in prayer. Certainly we are more likely to be hopeful. Indeed, we are less likely to be terrified in challenging times if we posses an inner belief that we are being ‘looked’ after. Being prayerful encourages forgiveness. It promotes gratitude and compassion. These are traits being uncovered in the happiness studies! However, I also can understand why some people might have a totally different response in crisis and turn their back on prayer because it didn’t work. I spoke with someone lately who was terminally ill and she told me that she had given up on prayer because it hadn’t worked! Likewise, I have spoken to some people who never prayed until they faced a serious and life-changing challenge! The world of prayer is certainly a complex one.
However, prayer has been found to result in a many health benefits including improved psychological functioning, a sense of well-being and meaning, and better stress reduction and coping (Masters, 2007). It is possible that it is the spirituality that makes the difference. Prayers are only an expression of spirituality and maybe we need to work on becoming more spiritual before prayers make any difference at all.