Study Investigates Compassion as Pathway to Health

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Religion and Health

A new study has isolated compassion as a possible pathway through which religiosity leads to better health.

The study builds on previous investigations that found religious people are healthier than people who are not religious. Lead study author Patrick Steffen said the mechanism of the religion-health relationship is unclear, so his team set out to better understand the association.

The Brigham Young University study surveyed students from the school and people from the surrounding community to measure the 441 participants' psychosocial health outcomes.

"We found compassionate attitude to be an important factor in the religion-health relationship and related to positive psychosocial outcomes, including reduced depressive symptoms and reduced perceived stress," the study found.

But the study group was a highly religious population, Steffen said, and probably too homogenous for the findings to be widely generalized.

The people identified as religious scored high on measures of a compassionate attitude and good psychosocial health, the researchers found. When religion was pulled out of that equation, Steffen said the link between compassion and positive psychosocial outcomes remained significant. By contrast, the relationship between positive health and religion did not hold up when compassion was removed from the equation, the study found.

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"Just going to church on Sunday, or synagogue on Saturday, isn't sufficient for good health," Steffen said. "It's going there and learning the principles and incorporating that into your life. I think that's what's behind the relationship between religion and health."

The study is published in the December Annals of Behavioral Medicine. It defines compassion as being moved by the suffering of others and having the desire to alleviate that suffering.

The researchers said identifying compassion as an "active ingredient" in the religion-health relationship is important because many people are not willing to participate in religion. Steffen said encouraging compassionate attitudes might be a health promotion tool, separate from religion.

"If you are compassionate, even if you are not religious, you are still going to have the positive psychosocial health outcomes," he said.

The religion-health association at the heart of the Brigham Young study is not uniformly accepted by all social scientists. Many researchers, like Columbia University biostatistician Emilia Bagiella, are still skeptical about that relationship.

In a 2002 Annals of Behavioral Medicine article, Bagiella and colleagues reviewed 266 studies exploring the relationship between health and religion, but found that 83 percent included irrelevant claims of the health advantages associated with religious involvement. For example, some studies examined only the link between health and lifestyle practices, not the beliefs, of certain denominations.

Bagiella, who was not involved in the Brigham Young research, says religiosity and compassion are slippery, value-laden concepts that are usually measured through participants' self-reported questionnaires.

There are many reasons why a person might give certain answers to a questionnaire, according to Bagiella. The design and context in which those questionnaires are administered can undermine or boost a reviewer's confidence in the study, she said.

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