The Personal Effects Of Prayer

If curses worked, there would be a lot fewer drivers on the road. If prayers were effective, my students would pass my classes. If prayers and curses don’t work, why are they still invoked?

Prayers are multifaceted, and it seems only certain aspects of prayer are ineffective — prayers for other people, for example.

Several studies have been conducted to test the effectiveness of praying for others. The most comprehensive and rigorous of these was the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) project, which tested the notion that praying for sick patients improved their health. STEP was a double-blind study that involved 1,800 patients who had received coronary bypass surgery. Neither the patients nor their doctors were allowed to know which patients were prayed for and which were not. The patients were divided into several groups. Group 1 received prayers and didn’t know it. Group 2 received no prayers and didn’t know it. Group 3 received prayers and did know it. This third group was not subjected to the double-blind testing standard, but was important to the study nonetheless for examining any possible psychosomatic effects of prayer. Three separate churches in different parts of the country provided the prayers.

The results of the test were reported in the April 2006 American Heart Journal. According to the findings of this study, there was no difference between patients who were prayed for and those who were not (Groups 1 and 2). (Patients who received no prayers actually fared slightly better than patients who did, but the difference was deemed too small to be of any significance.) There was, however, a noticeable difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not (Group 3 versus Groups 1 and 2). Those who knew they were prayed for suffered significantly more complications than the other patients. This was attributed to “performance anxiety.” Patients in Group 3 knew people were praying for them and felt pressure to do well. This also convinced them that they were so sick a prayer team was needed. After all, one doesn’t need prayers for a runny nose or a sore throat.

Thus, instead of bringing comfort, the prayers added extra stress and worry for these patients. I suppose the only thing more distressing in this scenario would be to find out your own doctor is praying for you.

Is praying to be completely dismissed, then? Should churches and other places of worship stop their practice of asking their congregations to pray for others?

No. A quote widely attributed to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard seems to sum up the purpose and power of prayer: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” In other words, prayer is helpful for the one praying, not the one being prayed for. While praying for others seems to have no discernible positive effect, there is a wealth of evidence that suggests prayer and meditation have beneficial effects on the person engaged in these practices.

Prayer, meditation and related practices are conducive to developing a positive mental attitude. What is more, numerous studies attest to the physical and psychological benefits of such a positive outlook. Better concentration and patience, deep relaxation and inner calm, and even faster recovery from illness and lower blood pressure are just some of the conclusions reached in studies that examined the impact of prayer and meditation on the practitioner. Such benefits are worth seeking.

Walking meditation or prayer also provides an outlet for releasing anger, and eases stress, grief and fear. This explains in part the rise in attendance at places of worship during war and troubling times. Prayer and meditation calm the mind and help one solve problems, cultivate creativity, or gain insight or form a new perspective. In fact, nearly all the ideas for this column were developed while engaged in these activities. (Obviously, they don’t always work well or work at all.)

Prayer and meditation work better for oneself than for others. Indeed, research suggests that praying for others does not help and it may even have a negative effect.

This ultimately may explain why no religion has saved me yet: I know people are praying for me.