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Want To Boost Mental Health? Hold Yourself Accountable To A Higher Power

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March 4, 2022
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We know things like managing stress, spending time in nature, and working out are all great for our mindset. But how do spirituality and religion factor into the equation? According to a new study published in the Journal of Religion and Health1, trusting in a higher power can have a profound impact on one's mental health. Here's what the researchers found.

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Studying the impact of spirituality on mental health.

For this study, researchers wanted to specifically look at how feeling accountable to God (or any higher power) influenced the mental well-being of participants. Previous research has looked at the impact of things like church attendance on well-being, for example, but this study's accountability angle hadn't been studied before.

Unlike studying the effects of prayer or church attendance, which can be considered social norms, feeling personal accountability to a higher power is an internal, individual process. The study authors explain that "theistic accountability" entails embracing that accountability and using it to guide oneself in life.

Participants were asked two questions—whether they made decisions with God in mind, and whether they depended on God for help in their life—to determine theistic accountability.

What the researchers found.

Based on the findings, it appears those who feel accountable to a higher power also experience greater mental well-being. Of the four variables of psychological well-being (i.e., mattering to others, dignity, feeling meaning in one's life, and happiness), participants with theistic accountability had higher levels of the first three, with no association to overall happiness.

The research also found that when theistic accountability was paired with prayer, associations to mental health were even higher.

"[Those with theistic accountability] welcome responsibilities that are associated with their faith and view accountability to God as a gift that helps them lead happy and successful lives," study co-author Blake Victor Kent, Ph.D., explains in a news release, adding, "Accountability has been examined philosophically as a virtue relevant to the spiritual life, but until now no one had quantified it."

And as Lisa Miller, Ph.D., an award-winning researcher in spirituality and psychology and the author of The Awakened Brain, recently explained on the mindbodygreen podcast, spirituality is important for not only mental health but physical brain health as well, with stark differences observed in the brains of spiritual people versus nonspiritual people.

When Miller studied MRI scans of people who had struggled with feelings of sadness, she says, "People who [had] a spiritual response to suffering showed entirely different brains. They showed not thinning but thickening across the regions of perception and reflection, the parietal, precuneus, and occipital [regions]." 

She adds that prayer "opens up our direct relationship with God, the loving guidance spirit in and through life," so it makes sense that praying, along with theistic accountability, would further bolster the potential mental benefits of spirituality.

As lead author of the study Matt Bradshaw, Ph.D., says, "Humans are social creatures, and our psychological health is bound up in positive and constructive relationships—not only with other people, but also with God."

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The takeaway.

There are plenty of ways to boost our mental health, and holding yourself accountable to a higher power appears to be one of them. This research is a reminder that trusting in forces beyond oneself can be a gateway to peace and personal fulfillment.

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