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New research to evaluate long-term links between spiritual practice and physical, mental and social well-being

A new set of studies based at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health will examine the ways that individual religious participation can contribute to various aspects of human flourishing over the long term. The three-year project, made possible by a $1.23 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, will offer an unprecedented examination of the potential effects of religion on happiness, life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, character, and social relationships.

The studies will be led by Tyler VanderWeele, an epidemiologist who is co-director of Harvard’s Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality, and director of the university’s Program on Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing. VanderWeele has already published important research showing longitudinal associations between religious participation and physical health, but the new planned studies should offer insights into other questions about religion and other categories of human flourishing.


The project will draw on several large long-term studies that have charted a vast suite of health and human data — including religious activity, mental health symptoms, life satisfaction, self-esteem, frequency of volunteering, and voter registration — collected from thousands of participants over the course of decades. Most previous analyses that have sought to examine associations between religion and flourishing have been shorter-term, cross-sectional studies, making it difficult to assess causal effects. For example, if a cross-sectional study shows that people who attend church report above-average happiness, one might be tempted to conclude that religious participation is associated with happiness — but it could also be that unhappy people have stopped attending. Long-term studies have the potential to show the ways that religious participation at any time in people’s lives is correlated with future measures of flourishing. One hypothesis that the team plans to investigate is whether exposure to religious participation during childhood is associated with any measures of improved psychological well-being during adulthood.

The depth of data available in the long-term studies to be analyzed will allow VanderWeele’s team to report on multiple outcomes in individual papers, mitigating the danger of cherry-picking of results by outcome. Their analyses will also employ a relatively new statistical metric, the E Value, intended to summarize and track the level of evidence for causality in given correlation, making it easier to understand why certain associations are significant.


VanderWeele’s team at Harvard includes co-director Dr. Tracy Balboni (a leading researcher on spirituality and end-of-life care) and co-investigators Ying Chin (who has extensive experience with several of the long-term data sets to be analyzed) and Howard Koh (a former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who will contribute his policy experience to the analyses). Together, they hope to produce dozens of papers and conference presentations and at least one mass-market book on their results. They will also use the project to launch a Harvard course on the topic “Religion, Well-Being, and Public Health.”

“This project directly addresses one of the core questions we want to address: Under what conditions might religion and spirituality contribute to human flourishing?,” says Kimon Sargeant, the John Templeton Foundation’s Vice President, Programs. “Tyler VanderWeele is an extraordinarily productive researcher and is skilled at engaging scholars in disciplines ranging from biomedical research to sociology and theology. His team will use cutting-edge statistical techniques to analyze the existing data, and examine rigorously whether and where there are robust correlations — and even causal relationships — between religious practice and various aspects of a life well-lived.”


Learn more about project leaders and investigators Tyler VanderWeele, Tracy Balboni, Ying Chen, and Howard Koh.

Explore the other work of the Harvard Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality, which is directed by the grant’s co-leaders.