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More than a platitude: Praying for others promotes hope, optimism, studies suggest

My prayers are with you.

From Pope Francis attempting to console the survivors of the Oklahoma tornadoes to neighbors trying to comfort a friend with cancer, it is a familiar sentiment uttered whenever misfortune strikes.

But what do those prayers mean? More than you might imagine, it turns out, particularly when the pledge comes from someone near to the person suffering, new research suggests.

One national study found that people who were prayed for by someone close to them were the most optimistic about their future – even though individuals receiving prayer were more likely to be facing adversity such as mental or physical health issues or unemployment.

Separate studies have found praying for others to be associated with outcomes from better romantic relationships among young adults to helping older adults cope with living in run-down neighborhoods.

This is still early research in a field that has devoted much greater attention to the less quantifiable question of whether intercessory prayer can physically heal illness. But it indicates people who are sincerely motivated to pray for others may want to consider making their intentions known.

Likely, “It would be a positive thing, especially if you know the person,” said researcher Markus Schafer of the University of Toronto.

Bringing God into the picture

About two out of three Americans report having someone close to them who prays of their behalf, according to the 2006 Portraits of American Life Study.

Adults who receive such prayer were significantly more likely to be optimistic about the future, Schafer found in his analysis of the study data. Having friends who are not family members pray for them was especially associated with high rates of optimism.

The study also gauged other aspects of social support such as giving help or providing advice or money, but only the act of being prayed for had a significant association with optimism. Schafer reported his findings in the current issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Schafer said in an interview he was a bit surprised to also find being prayed for appeared to benefit people across a spectrum of beliefs.

“Even people that aren’t religious … they still appeared to have benefited from that type of support from their friends,” he said. “Perhaps, in their mind, it doesn’t hurt to have that extra little bit of support.”

Other studies also have found positive outcomes for intercessory prayer.

In three studies focusing on young adults, praying for a romantic partner was associated with more satisfying relationships and a greater sense of commitment. Researchers from Florida State University and the University of Georgia reported the results in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Among older adults, two waves of a national survey in 2005 and 2007 showed that the negative effect on depressive symptoms of living in a dilapidated neighborhood was significantly reduced for older people who believed others often pray for them.

“The findings indicate that this uniquely religious form of helping behavior makes it easier for older people to cope with the problems they face,” researcher Neal Krause of the University of Michigan wrote in an article in the Review of Religious Research.

Divine care

Not everyone is enamored of the phrase, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” It is interpreted by some as a cliché that can be devoid of sincerity and substance.

But for a large number of Americans those are the first words that come to mind in offering comfort to others. And many religious individuals consider it a positive, meaningful response to the suffering of people across the street or throughout the world.

“I am close to the families of all who died in the Oklahoma tornado, especially those who lost young children. Join me in praying for them,” Pope Francis recently tweeted.

What makes prayer unique – the appeal to a transcendent higher power – also provides a special source of hope to many individuals, observers say.

Consider that more than three-quarters of respondents to the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey believe God is concerned with their personal well-being.

‘“Bringing God’ into social support likely fosters optimism for the recipient because of the widespread belief that God is capable of fixing problems and able to actually produce a better tomorrow,” Schafer notes.

Letting people know you are praying for them may be considered trite, or even insensitive in some circles. For many Americans, however, it appears the more divine attention that comes their way in times of hardship, the better.

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