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Common Prayers Catalyst for Uncommon Compassion

When you say a little prayer for someone, new research suggests you may be changing your emotional relationship with that person.
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The purported power of prayer has been the subject of much recent research, with studies of the benefits of being prayed for coming to conflicting conclusions. A newly published study turns the issue around, asking the intriguing question: How does praying for someone affect the person saying the prayers?

The answer seems to be: It makes them more forgiving, at least toward the person they are praying for. According to a paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, the person doing the praying feels increased levels of forgiveness toward the person being prayed for. And forgiveness, as the researchers note, is a vital element in maintaining close relationships.

"Our data suggest that some types of prayer may increase selfless concern for others, thereby increasing forgiveness and potentially promoting cooperative goals," concludes a research team led by Nathaniel Lambert of Florida State University. "This mechanism may provide a partial explanation for the beneficial effects of prayer on relationship satisfaction over the longer term."

In the first of two studies, 26 college undergraduates in the southeastern U.S. (admittedly a strongly religious region of the nation) were instructed to say a prayer for their romantic partner. Another 26 were instructed to describe their partner's physical attributes into a recording device, "as if they were describing him or her to a parent."

All the participants then completed a survey in which forgiveness was measured in terms of their motivation to retaliate when their partner has hurt them. Those who had said the prayer had a significantly higher forgiveness score — a particularly notable result "given that only a single prayer produced this effect," the researchers write.

The second study took place over a period of four weeks; it featured 67 undergraduates, all of whom reported they were "comfortable with prayer." Approximately one-third of the participants were instructed to "set aside at least one time each day to pray for the well-being" of a specific friend.

Another third were asked to pray daily, but without a particular person in mind, and the final third were told to "think positive thoughts about your friend" at least once a day. All then completed a questionnaire measuring their feelings of forgiveness and selfless concern.

The results: "Other-directed prayer every day for four weeks increased participants' willingness to forgive their friend. Praying for the well-being of a friend had a greater effect on forgiveness than undirected prayer or thinking positive thoughts about the friend. Praying for a friend also increased a general sense of selfless concern for others."

The researchers concede "it is likely that some types of prayer will prove destructive of relationships under some circumstances." (Say, if you're praying for the other person to get hit by a bus.) Nevertheless, their study suggests directed prayer shifts one's attitude toward a friend or romantic partner, reducing resentment and the likelihood of conflict.

Perhaps the family that prays together stays together because its members treat one another with above-average levels of kindness.

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