There has been a lot of work in recent years by economists on the determinants of people’s well-being. Many of these determinants are not something you can do much about at least in the short run, like income or health.
In a paper in press in Social Science and Medicine I look at the effect of prayer on the number of symptoms of depression recorded by individuals in the previous month. The data is from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) . I use the Euro-D scale which was designed to measure the incidence of depression symptons in an older population – it is not a diagnostic scale.
There are many studies looking at associations between well-being or mental health and either religion affiliation or devotion. Freud took a rather dim view of religion and this has cast a long shadow on the issue. As far as I can see, he did not do any serious data analysis so its unclear to me why one should put any weight on his views.
A problem of course in this literature, is whether one can infer anything causal. After all, people who are feeling down might easily turn to religion as a response. I use instrumental variable estimation to tackle this issue.
This turns a positive association (prayer positively correlated with depression) to a negative one i.e. prayer reduces the number of depression symptoms. This is not that surprising in a sense: if prayer made you more miserable on average, you would have an incentive not to do it. The results are robust to various combinations of instruments.
The magnitude of the effect (of praying at least daily) is comparable to that associated with different marital statuses, about half that of being female and twice as big as the effect of being unemployed.
I speculate on the possible mechanisms behind this effect, noting that it may not be the religious aspect per se. There is increasing evidence of the benefits of meditition and mindfulness based techniques for reducing depression and anxiety.