Health, Happiness and Faith

Health, Happiness and Faith

Study reveals four dimensions of faith and health

Monday, August 27, 2007


Many studies have shown that faith has a positive effect on health. Religious people tend to live longer, cope better with illness and even have lower blood pressure.

But a few studies have shown a negative connection between faith and health, something that has puzzled researchers.

Cheryl L. Holt, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is an authority on the connection between religion and health. Holt, along with researchers from St. Louis University and Florida A&M University, recently published a study in the Journal of Health Psychology that casts light on the subject. They found four dimensions of faith and health among 108 black women from eight Birmingham churches. Here is Holt’s expert opinion:

What did you set out to do with this study?

This work began a couple years ago when we were talking to African-American women about their health experience. We noticed that their stories involved a significant role of a higher power, or God, if you will. So we wanted to explore that a little deeper.

So we did our first study. We talked to men and women about these beliefs, about the role of higher power in health. There were a couple different ways people felt about their higher power in health.

They may have felt like they had an active, empowered role where God empowered them to take good care of themselves and empowered them to take proactive health behaviors. And there were folks who felt it was all up to God: `Maybe I don’t need to get that mammogram, and I don’t need to get proactive.’ We got a lot less of that. It really was more the empowerment.

We had found some useful information and published it in Health Psychology. But it was clear that we needed to do more work.

So belief in God motivated people mostly in a positive way?

Yes, largely. Then we set out to do a follow-up study. This revealed more ways that people think about the role of God in their health. It included those original active and passive roles. But it also included spiritual life in faith, which is embodied in the notion that if I lead a good spiritual life I will be healthy. Another idea evolved, which we called God’s grace. That involves the notion that God has a very powerful role in one’s health, and it’s up to him if a person is going to stay healthy or get sick.

So we had these four dimensions. I don’t think we have all the answers yet, but we’ve come a little farther and learned a little more about the way people think about this.

We’ve only done work with African-Americans, mostly women and Christian denominations. We have to be careful about making broad generalizations.

Were you able to connect beliefs with health behaviors?

The women in the study who held passive spiritual beliefs tended to have less knowledge about breast cancer and mammograms. This is couched in a breast-cancer study. What that means is the women who felt it was all up to God anyway, … they weren’t going to take any action about health. So they were less likely to have a mammograms. It’s kind of more fatalistic.

How do you apply this?

We have this line of research that helps us look at religious beliefs and health. We have another line of research that is community based. We partner with area churches and we do health education to raise awareness about particular health issues. We can apply these findings to those projects.

For example, if we know people are feeling a particular way about the role of a higher power in health, we can craft health educational messages that use those ideas and themes.

So this is helpful in delivering health messages to congregations?

Sure. We train community volunteers from the churches to talk to their fellow church members about health issues. We’ve done several project like this. It’s been very well received. People like linking the spiritual message and the health message.

We try to meet people where they are in terms of beliefs. We respect people’s beliefs, but we try to frame a health message around people’s existing beliefs. We don’t try to change those beliefs, but we try to send a health message that’s culturally appropriate.