Well-Being

Very Religious Americans Report Less Depression, Worry

Relationship holds when controlling for key demographics

This is the second article in a special multipart series on religiosity and wellbeing in America. The first article explored the relationship between religiosity and wellbeing across the Well-Being Index and sub-indexes. This piece explores specific components within the Emotional Health Index.

PRINCETON, NJ -- Very religious Americans in the United States are less likely to report having been diagnosed with depression over the course of their lifetime than those who are moderately religious or nonreligious. This relationship between depression and religion, based on an analysis of more than 550,000 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index interviews, is statistically significant after controlling for major demographic and regional variables.

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Nearly one in six (15.6%) very religious American adults have been diagnosed with depression in their lifetime. This group is about 24% less likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who are moderately religious and 17% less likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who are nonreligious.

It is important to note that Gallup asks Americans if they have been diagnosed with depression at any point in their life. These findings thus do not necessarily imply that the act of becoming religious will reduce or eliminate depression for those currently experiencing it.

For the purposes of this analysis, an American's relative degree of religiousness is based on responses to two questions asking about the importance of religion and church attendance, yielding three specific groups:

  • Very religious -- Religion is an important part of daily life and church/synagogue/mosque attendance occurs at least every week or almost every week. This group constitutes 43.7% of the adult population.
  • Moderately religious -- All others who do not fall into the very religious or nonreligious groups but who gave valid responses on both religion questions. This group constitutes 26.6% of the adult population.
  • Nonreligious -- Religion is not an important part of daily life and church/synagogue/mosque attendance occurs seldom or never. This group constitutes 29.7% of the adult population.

Previous research has shown that religiosity, defined either as church attendance or self-reported importance of religion, is related to age, gender, race and ethnicity, region and state of the country, socioeconomic status, marital status, and child-bearing status. Because wellbeing is also related to these variables, this analysis statistically controls for all of these characteristics. In the first article in this series, Gallup examined the overall positive relationship between religiosity and wellbeing.

Daily Negative Emotions Lower for Very Religious

Very religious Americans are also less likely to report experiencing the daily negative emotions of worry, stress, sadness, and anger than are their moderately religious and nonreligious counterparts.

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All or Nothing?

The prevalence of depression and negative emotions among those who are not very religious does not follow a straight, linear path. Nonreligious respondents experience lower levels of these negative emotions than moderately religious respondents, suggesting a complex pattern of the interplay of religion and emotional wellbeing among those who are not at the top end of the religious scale. Across all emotional wellbeing dimensions tested, however, those who are very religious score higher than either those who are moderately or nonreligious.

Implications

While the Gallup analysis documents a significant relationship between high religiosity and lower levels of negative emotional wellbeing, the study cannot determine the precise cause. It is possible that Americans who exhibit lower emotional negativity may be more likely to choose to be religious than those with higher emotional negativity. It is also possible that some third variable could be driving certain segments of the U.S. population to be more religious and to have better emotional wellbeing.

The best explanation for the observed relationship between religion and more positive states of emotional health may be the most straightforward -- that being religious in fact produces a salutary effect on one's mental health. There are many possible reasons why this could be the case. This might include the interpersonal and social interaction that accompanies religious service participation, the ability of religion to provide explanations for setbacks and problems, the positive benefits of meditative states, prayer and belief in a higher power, and the focus placed on others and charitable activities by many religions.

It is also noteworthy that nonreligious Americans have slightly better emotional health than their moderately religious counterparts, revealing a non-linear relationship between religiosity and emotional wellbeing. It is possible that those who are steadfast in their religious beliefs are more psychologically positioned to yield superior emotional wellbeing outcomes than those that pursue religiosity less consistently. The greater religious ambivalence found in this latter group could be a leading and lagging factor in their more negative emotional health, as these Americans may be less prone to commit to one belief system fully because of their higher rates of depression, stress, and worry.

Gallup will continue to explore the relationship between wellbeing and religion in future articles.

About the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index tracks U.S. wellbeing and provides best-in-class solutions for a healthier world. To learn more, please visit well-beingindex.com.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews conducted as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey Jan. 2-July 28, 2010, with a random sample of 554,066 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, selected using random-digit-dial sampling. Of this sample, very religious respondents comprised the plurality (43.2%), with slightly more than one-quarter each for moderately religious and nonreligious respondents.

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For results based on the religiosity groups of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±0.5 percentage point for each group.

Generalized linear model analysis was used to estimate marginal scores all the six Indexes after controlling for age (in years), gender, race/ethnicity, marital status, education (number of years), log of income, and region of the country.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each daily sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, cell phone-only status, cell phone-mostly status, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit http://www.gallup.com/.

Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/144980/Religious-Americans-Report-Less-Depression-Worry.aspx Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A +1 202.715.3030