Among the researchers' initial discoveries is that African Americans who say they have a strong relationship with God were significantly less likely to report depressive symptoms than those who did not. Among white participants in the study, there was very little impact of religious belief and reported depression.
In order to determine why African Americans were more likely to have depression reduced by religious belief, the team measured feelings of alienation, which they hypothesized may have an impact on depression. Because of discrimination and related experiences, African Americans reported higher levels of alienation than did whites, the team found.
"We reasoned that when one's group is the target of cultural bias, connections with one's countrymen may not be sufficient to reduce feelings of alienation. Reliance on a power that supercedes that of the country, God, may be beneficial, however," said team leader John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University.
"Thus the consequences of a personal relationship with God may confer benefits in circumstances beyond the reach of relationships with individuals," he added.
The Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation has given the University $1.8 million to launch the study, which will be coupled with University work on aging supported with $7.5 million from the National Institute on Aging of the Department of Health and Human Services. That work is an interdisciplinary effort to understand the connections between longevity and loneliness. Religious belief, like social support, could have beneficial effects on people's health, scholars contend.