Practicing Religion Has Health Benefits—But Not for Everyone

Study By Social Work Professor Presented at Touro Research Day

April 25, 2017

New York, NY - A new study has found that partaking in religious activities can improve your mood, but it may only help you if you are sincere about your religious beliefs.

The study, to be presented at Touro College Research Day today, found that engaging in religious activities is beneficial for those who truly embrace their religious beliefs. But, like other activities, if your heart is not in it, it could just feel like a duty or chore and can make you feel worse.

Organized by the Touro Research Collaborative, Touro College Research Day will be held at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Touro College of Pharmacy campus at 230 W. 125th St. in Harlem from 11:30 am-5:00 pm.

Past studies have found that practicing religion has many benefits to your mental wellbeing. But Steven Tzvi Pirutinsky, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Clinical Social Work at Touro College, suspected that for those who struggle with their spirituality, religious activities might be a stressor.

“We thought that for people who were intrinsically motivated – meaning that religion had meaning for them -- it would lower their depression, but for those who were extrinsically motivated -- they did it for social connections, status, family -- it would relate to higher levels of depression,” says Dr. Pirutinsky.

He and David Rosmarin, Ph.D., of Harvard University, conducted a three-year study of 154 Jewish men and women who met the criteria for a mood disorder. They were drawn from a larger study on Judaism and mental health. Each participant answered questions about their religious activities and their motivations for religious practice, and they were assessed for depression every six months.

The researchers found that for people who were intrinsically motivated, religious practice made them feel better, but for those who were extrinsically motivated, they became depressed over time. “It makes sense that if you’re doing something that’s personally meaningful, it makes you feel better, but on the other hand, if it’s not meaningful, that causes you stress, and it could have a long term negative effect on your mood,” says Dr. Pirutinsky.

“Although studies have found that religious practice is generally positive for mental health, it’s important to recognize that there are times when it isn’t, and in fact it could be a source of stress,” says Dr. Pirutinsky, who wants to get the word out to therapists who work with particularly religious patients. One of the strategies to treat depression is to identify meaningful activities that patients can engage it to raise their mood. For those who have a lot of religious commitments, these opportunities may be religiously based. But for those who are not intrinsically motivated, these religious-based activities may actually make things worse.

“If a clinician is going to recommend religious activities, they need to assess what meaning religion has for the person.”

According to Pirutinsky, although this study only included Jewish participants, it is likely that similar dynamics exist in other religious cultures, and further research is warranted.

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About the Touro College and University System

Touro is a system of non-profit institutions of higher and professional education. Touro College was chartered in 1970 primarily to enrich the Jewish heritage, and to serve the larger American and global community. Approximately 18,000 students are currently enrolled in its various schools and divisions. Touro College has 30 campuses and locations in New York, California, Nevada, Berlin, Jerusalem and Moscow. New York Medical College; Touro University California and its Nevada branch campus; Touro University Worldwide and its Touro College Los Angeles division; as well as Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Ill. are separately accredited institutions within the Touro College and University System. For further information on Touro College, please go to: