The Power of Prayer

We’ve all faced what seem to be insurmountable difficulties in our lives, whether it be illness, financial woes, or a devastating loss. If you’re a religious person or among the growing number of Americans who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” you naturally turn to prayer to help you through those difficult times. But does praying help? Well, the research is in and the results are unequivocal: yes and no.

Science has studied that very question over the last several decades with some surprising, and controversial, results. One could argue that science has no place in studying the power of prayer, that prayer by its nature is personal and the effects immeasurable. Still, science being science – and many scientists themselves also being religious or spiritual persons – there has been a growing interest in measuring the tangible results of prayer.

One study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health found that intercessory prayer (praying on behalf of someone else) had positive therapeutic effects on the health of hospital patients diagnosed with cancer and AIDS. A similar study by the Mayo Clinic found no such correlation (Time, 2002). And other studies have been equally lauded or criticized in turn (WebMd).

However, a new comparison of multiple studies conducted over many decades has found some surprising similarities among the research participants. In general, people who consider themselves to be religious:

(1) exercise better self-control
(2) are better able to achieve their long-term goals
(3) live healthier lives
(4) live longer lives
(5) have a more positive outlook on life.

So, whether your prayers are answered or not, it may certainly be true that “prayer may not change things for you, but it sure changes you for things” (Samuel M. Shoemaker).

For more reading:
Investigating the Power of Prayer,” Time, Jan. 16, 2002
Probing the Power of Prayer,” WebMD, 2000
Religion May Have Evolved Because of Its Ability to Help People Exercise Self-Control,” ScienceDaily, Jan. 1, 2009


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