This is a study on nearly 25,000 Norwegians conducted over 10 years (the Nord-Trøndelag Health Survey (HUNT)). The purpose of HUNT is to track changes in health in the whole population over several decades - and one of the things they measured in the latest survey round (HUNT 3, conducted 2006-2008) was religious attendance.
After controlling for other factors related to headache (age, gender, educational level and chronic musculoskeletal complaints), they found that those who had headaches in 1995 were more likely to be frequent attenders at religious services in 2006 (by frequent religious attenders, they mean in the Norwegian sense - i.e. at least once a month!).
Now, this was entirely down to migraines (rather than regular headaches), and the effect was quite large. Those who had migraines more than 7 days a month were 50% more likely to be frequent religious service attenders 10 years later than those who were migraine free.
What was really interesting was that there was no relationship to current headache levels. So it's headache in the past, rather than current headache, that's associated with current religious service attendance.
And it was something particular about religion, too. There was no relationship with visiting concerts, cinema and/or theatre.
Now, they didn't measure religious service attendance in the earlier surveys. So there's a little bit of ambiguity here. But on the whole, it's pretty good data and it fits with some theoretical expectations.
The study's authors point out that other research has found that patients with chronic pain often report that they turn to religion.
Indeed, in the HUNT study itself they have previously found that regular churchgoers had lower blood pressure. And one of the symptoms of raised blood pressure is... you guessed it - headache!
I'm not entirely convinced, however. In particular, why does current headache not link to religious service attendance?
I'd like to see how headache changed among individuals between 1995 and 2006. Some people stopped having headaches - was that linked to frequent religious service attendance?
If not, then why would people with headaches turn to religion?
Erling Tronvik, Torgeir Sørensen, Mattias Linde, Lars Bendtsen, Ville Artto, Katarina Laurell, Mikko Kallela, John-Anker Zwart, & Knut Hagen (2014). The relationship between headache and
religious attendance (the Nord-Trøndelag health study- HUNT) The Journal of Headache and Pain, 15 (1)
Believing in hell seems to make people unhappy. That's the conclusion that Azim Shariff (University of Oregon, USA) and Lara Aknin (Simon Fraser University, Canada) have come to as a result of a series of studies. Now, that's actually more surprising than you might at first imagine, so it's worth checking out just what they did.
First off was a correlation among nations. They looked at how many people in each country believed in heaven, and subtracted from that the numbers that believed in hell - giving a number that perhaps reflects the 'heaven surplus'. They found that countries with a high heaven surplus tended also to have a happier population.
Next they looked within the same database, but at individuals. They found that people who believed in hell tended to be less satisfied with their lives and tended to experience 'well being' less often. Belief in heaven had an equal and opposite effect.
You can probably think of quite a few alternative explanations for those correlations. So what they did next was a priming study.
They asked 422 American adults to write about hell, or heaven, or what they did yesterday. Then they asked about how happy they were feeling (ignoring the responses from those who guessed the underlying purpose of the study).
What they found was that "Participants who wrote about Hell reported significantly less happiness and more sadness than those who wrote about Heaven, or those in the neutral writing condition." In fact, the interesting finding was that writing about heaven had no effect on happiness - all the differences were purely down to hell making people sad.
Atheists were also susceptible to the effect - writing about hell made them feel sad, too.
Now, Shariff and Aknin are quick to acknowledge that this study isn't definitive. The first two studies were correlational (and in fact the first really looked at heaven beliefs, not hell beliefs), so you can't rule out the possibility that sad people choose to believe in hell.
What's more, there are enormous cultural differences in what is understood by the term 'heaven'. Traditional Chinese religions don't have the dualistic concepts familiar to us in the west.
And their priming study was done in the USA, so may not apply directly to other countries. And the magnitude of the effect was not huge.
Still, it's hard to escape their conclusion that "Nevertheless, our finding that certain religious beliefs are consistently related to lower levels of well-being adds nuance to the general finding that religion is tied to greater well-being."
That leads to the question: "why?"
They suggest that there is a trade off between the effect of hell belief on the individual, and the effect on societies. The individual takes on a hell belief that makes them unhappy, but makes society better (through inhibiting bad behaviour) and so provides a payoff in the long run.
There are holes that could be picked in this idea. The obvious one is that free-riders could feign belief in hell and so get the benefits without the costs. If the costs of hell belief were meaningful, in time everyone would be a free-rider (of course, it could be that the sadness induced by hell beliefs doesn't have any meaningful effects on fitness, from an evolutionary perspective - evolution doesn't care if you're sad!).
Nevertheless, Shariff and Aknin reckon that this might explain why hell beliefs are on the wane. In the past people believed in hell in order to keep society safe. But, with the establishment of rule-following, well policed and governed nations, the need for hell ebbed away - so people dropped their sadness-inducing beliefs.
You could debate whether belief in hell actually reduces criminality - though Sharif has previously provided evidence that it does. Arguably, all that's important for to maintain belief in hell is that people believe that it has this effect. So perhaps people give up on hell because they stop believing that it has any effect on behaviour.
And you need to consider other research that belief in hell is linked to fearfulness in general, and not to real, objective threats.
Shariff, A., & Aknin, L. (2014). The Emotional Toll of Hell: Cross-National and Experimental Evidence for the Negative Well-Being Effects of Hell Beliefs PLoS ONE, 9 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085251
So, posting has been infrequent of late. But on the plus side, that means I have a huge backlog of fantastic research to share with you. To get it cleared, I'm going to try a new approach - mixing in brief summaries of several studies in one post, as well as the usual, more in-depth articles.
To kick us off, here's three good ones on religion and mental health.
Does prayer stop brain ageing?
A door-to-door survey in Northern Israel, older
Arabic women who had their intellectual faculties fully intact tended to
report praying more when they were younger than women who had
Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment. Now, you can’t really
get cause and effect from memories of 20 years ago (doubly so from
people who aren’t firing on all cylinders), but that does link in with
other research. Interestingly, almost all the men they talked to
reported praying a lot when they were middle aged, regardless of their
The religious delusions of schizophrenics
A study of schizophrenics has found that their religious delusions were different in nature from their regular delusions – they tend to have more grandiosity and be linked to anomalous mood states. The researchers think that this might be why they are more difficult to treat.
A mystery to medical science?
Patients with 'medically unexplained symptoms' have symptoms and complaints with no apparent cause - at least as far as their doctor can discern. In a survey of doctors in the USA, two thirds thought that these unexplained symptoms probably reflect a disease that simply is not understood by medical science (i.e. they have a physical explanation). But the remaining one-third believe they reflect spiritual problems. Interestingly, psychiatrists are the least likely to resort to spiritual explanations - perhaps because they tend to be less religious than other physicians