The Hidden Power of Prayer

Science shows prayer works—just not in the way you’d expect, writes assistant editor Dan Hoffman.

Posted in , Dec 17, 2015

Studies explore the power of prayer and faith in helping others.

“You’ll be in my prayers.” How often have we said that to someone dealing with a loss or tragedy? We mean it, wholeheartedly, and many can testify to witnessing the power of prayer to heal, comfort and even turn around hopeless situations. However, for someone with shaky faith or none at all, words of prayer may seem like an empty gesture.

A recent article in New York Magazine argues otherwise. In “Even Atheists Could Benefit From Praying Every Once in a While,” writer Melissa Dahl discusses the current debate raised by “prayerful” tweets in response to recent tragedies. Can prayer be proven to have any tangible effects? The definitive answer to this question depends on what we’re talking about – those doing the praying, or what’s being prayed for.

Studies have been done to determine whether prayer has a measurable effect on the person being prayed for, but these are at best inconclusive. “Even the most devout would likely agree that attempts to objectively measure the efficacy of prayer are at best tricky, and at worst a probable waste of time,” Dahl writes. After all, not every prayer is answered the way we want. But as for those who pray, the science is solid: they exhibit improved self-control, decreased anger and stress, and are more likely to forgive and trust, says Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology in Psychology Today.

Part of this comes down to an intrinsic part of prayer—awe and humility. Communing with someone or something vaster and bigger than one self—nature, God, the stars—has been linked to greater happiness and overall well-being, according to studies done at the University of California-Berkeley. Dahl also cites a study in the journal Emotion that links feelings of awe to reducing risk factors related to heart disease and cancer.

This suggests a third aspect to the power of prayer—in addition to the immeasurable effect it has on others, and the proven effect it has on us, it prepares us to be of service to others in their time of need. After all, it helps us keep a positive frame of mind and gives us strength, which we can use when the people we love lean on us for support. Perhaps the question of “Does prayer work?” should be reframed: “How does prayer help me help my loved one?” A prayerful tweet shouldn’t be the end of our efforts.

We all know that prayer alone can’t solve every problem—we need to take action too. In a way that’s mysterious, prayer has a rebound effect that encourages us to take those actions. Use the power you gain from prayer. Whether you’re a believer or not, everyone can benefit from taking a moment to be humble and help find a way through the tough times that are outside our control.

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