New research published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds light on the complicated relationships between prayer, daily life experiences, and psychological well-being. The findings indicate that the content of people’s prayers tends to reflect the nature of their day, but it can also predict how people will feel and react the following day.
Recent surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Baylor Religion Survey indicate that between 44% and 55% of Americans pray every day. Even though fewer people are involved in organized religion, many still pray. In fact, praying is more common than other religious activities. Despite the widespread practice of prayer, we do not know much about how daily events affect the content of people’s prayers or how prayer affects people’s well-being.
“More broadly speaking, I’m interested in understanding well-being in daily life,” said study author David B. Newman, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco. “Religious beliefs and experiences are important factors to consider when examining well-being. There has been very little research on prayer and well-being in people’s daily lives. My former advisor was also interested in the topic and encouraged me to pursue this line of research.”
In three daily diary studies, 350 participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire every day for two weeks regarding positive and negative events they had experienced, emotions they had experienced, their general well-being, their satisfaction with life, their sense of meaning in life, and their self-esteem.
The participants also completed a questionnaire regarding four types of prayer they engaged in: supplication (“I made various requests of God”), thanksgiving (“I thanked God for things occurring in my life”), confession (“I acknowledged faults and misbehavior”), and adoration (“I praised God”).
The researchers found that in the daily lives of their participants, supplication and thanksgiving were the most common types of prayer, followed by adoration and confession. They also found that each type of prayer was related to the events of the day, the participant’s emotional state, and their overall well-being.
When participants experienced positive events, they were more likely to engage in thanksgiving, confession, and adoration, while negative events were more likely to result in supplication and less thanksgiving. Participants who had positive well-being measures, such as high self-esteem, tended to engage in more thanksgiving and adoration, while those with negative well-being measures tended to engage in more supplication and less thanksgiving.
“One key takeaway from these studies is that the content of people’s prayers changes from one day to the next,” Newman told PsyPost. “People tend to express thanksgiving and adoration in their prayers when the day is going well, and they tend to express supplication when the day isn’t going well.”
The researchers also found that different types of prayer were related to different emotions. Supplication was related to envy, thanksgiving was related to gratitude, confession was related to guilt, and adoration was related to awe.
Interestingly, engaging in supplication was associated with reduced well-being the following day. Thanksgiving and adoration also appeared to have negative effects on well-being the following day, even though they had positive effects on the same day. These negative effects were strongest for self-esteem, negative feelings like anger, and positive feelings like feeling relaxed.
“The lagged relationships from prayer on one day to well-being on the following day was initially surprising to me. But we also found that these lagged relationships were moderated by prayer frequency. Among people who prayed consistently every day, the lagged relationship from prayer on one day to well-being on the following day was either non-existent or slightly positive,” Newman explained.
“In contrast, among those who prayed infrequently, prayers of supplication, thanksgiving, and adoration were more strongly negatively associated with well-being on the following day. Though speculative, it may be the case that people who do not pray every day may have unrealistic expectations about how their prayers will influence their lives on the following day, which leads to lower well-being when expectations aren’t met.”
The study provides a deeper understanding of the relationship between prayer and everyday life. But as with all research, the study includes some limitations. “The participants were undergraduate students,” Newman noted. “Among religious participants, most were Christian. How prayer relates to people’s well-being in daily life may differ across the lifespan and across different religions and cultures.”
“One additional finding that I thought was quite interesting concerned the way we should conceptualize and measure prayer,” Newman added. “There have been various taxonomies or categories of prayer, such as the ACTS taxonomy, which stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. When we analyzed the data, we found that at an individual level, there wasn’t good evidence for these four categories.”
“They were all highly correlated with each other, which means that you can only distinguish people who pray from those who do not pray,” the researcher explained. “In contrast, when we analyzed the content of people’s prayers each day, we were able to distinguish the four categories quite well. This means that people may express supplication on one day and thanksgiving and adoration on another day.”
The study, “The Dynamics of Prayer in Daily Life and Implications for Well-Being“, was authored by David B. Newman, John B. Nezlek, and Todd M. Thrash