The growing body of scientific work that demonstrates the benefits of religious belief and behavior to adult health and well-being is now being channeled into practical programs that can be applied to congregational life.
Past research has shown that prayer, close social ties, altruistic behavior, and a sense of purpose are among the religious factors that have been associated with specific, measurable health improvements for religious practitioners. Melanie and Joe Adair, adjunct professors at the University of Tennessee, are attempting to create programs that will help adults improve their health by capitalizing on this research. In a presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion held in Houston in October, the Adairs surveyed the field of studies which give evidence to the religion/health connection.
They emphasized the recent research into a “neuropeptide delivery” phenomenon which provides a concrete neurochemical link between thoughts and physiological effects on the body. Then they outlined the design of an adult religious educational program designed to take advantage of this mind/body connection to link spiritual growth to health improvement Using their backgrounds in health education and instructional design, the Adairs have developed a program focusing on an optimum strategy to achieve improved health through spiritual growth.
By educating participants on what the Adairs call the “Be”-attitudes — forgiveness, thankfulness, creativity, altruism, and hopefulness among others — and guiding them in applying them to everyday life, they hope to provide adults with an integrated approach to physical as well as spiritual well-being.
The Adairs and their colleagues piloted such an educational program to forty-five adults over a period of several months. Participants were surveyed and interviewed before and after the program to detect changes in attitudes and perceived well-being. Seventy-six percent of the participants after the program expressed a feeling that they were in good health, which was a nine percent increase over the number indicating good health upon starting the program. (For reference, there was a four percent drop in perceived health for a control group over the same period.)
The percentage of participants indicating ailments and health impediments decreased by 12 percent (as opposed to an increase of 12 percent for the control group.) The Adairs find their pilot results encouraging enough to warrant more extensive research into the educational application of mind/body research. With the trends toward the aging of the American population, an increased interest in spirituality and alternative health practices, research into the effectiveness of this type of program bears watching. Designed specifically to be used in churches, a program like this may prove to be a popular ministry resource, especially for senior citizens.
— By Cody Clark, a Houston-based writer who runs a web site on religious futures called Signs & Wonders at www.wnrf.org/news