Prayer, meditation and corporate worship aren’t the only religious factors that contribute significantly to emotional and mental well-being, a study by Baylor University and other researchers has found.
The team of social scientists announced that believers who cultivate accountability to God experience higher levels of dignity, meaning and mattering to others, according to “Perceptions of Accountability to God and Psychological Well-Being Among U.S. Adults,” which was published earlier this year in the Journal of Religion and Health. The project was based on information collected in the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, a nationwide survey of religious behaviors, attitudes and values.
“A good deal of research examines how aspects of religious life such as church attendance, prayer and meditation are associated with psychological well-being, but no one has examined how feelings of accountability to God might play a role,” said Matt Bradshaw, lead author of the study and research professor of sociology at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
The project focused on the concept of “theistic accountability,” defined as being virtuously open and responsible to God in a manner distinct from conformity to the social norms of religious groups.
“People who embrace theistic accountability see themselves as answerable to God,” said co-author Blake Victor Kent, assistant professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Monica, Calif. “They welcome responsibilities that are associated with their faith and view accountability to God as a gift that helps them lead happy and successful lives. Accountability has been examined philosophically as a virtue relevant to the spiritual life, but until now no one had quantified it.”
Researchers used two prompts from the survey to isolate the role of theistic accountability in psychological health: “I decide what to do without relying on God” versus “I depend on God for help and guidance.”
Bradshaw noted that the subsequent analysis tapped into the relational nature of emotional health: “Why should we expect perceptions of accountability to God to be associated with well-being? It’s because 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.”
Kent explained that the project has launched a new approach to the larger body of research into the connection between faith and health.
“So much of the research examines religious attendance, and we certainly looked at that. But after confirming that church attendance was associated with our outcomes, we found that accountability to God helps explain a lot more of what is going on in that connection between religion and well-being.”
Another significant finding was that the results for happiness were noteworthy when religious items other than accountability were removed from the equation. “It may be that happiness varies more on a daily basis compared with the other outcomes and may therefore be more strongly correlated with social and psychological factors that change quickly from day to day compared with relatively stable characteristics like accountability to God,” according to the study.
The team added that it plans to conduct further research into the theistic accountability model. “Religious systems can impose external pressures on individuals to behave in particular ways,” said co-author Byron Johnson, professor of the social sciences at Baylor and director of its Institute for Studies of Religion. “But they also operate through individual yearnings, moral frames and religious impulses.”