Let’s start with the word itself. Spirituality. What does it mean?
If you don’t rely on a particular religion to outline some spiritual practices, you may not think of yourself as spiritual at all. I offer these definitions from a variety of sources:
Spirituality is an inner belief system that a person relies on for strength and comfort
– Psychologist Mark Holder
Spirituality is better thought of as a boundary-less dimension of human experience.
– Psychologist Larry Culliford
Spirituality arises from your connection with yourself and with others, the development of your personal value system, and your search for meaning in life.
– From the Mayo Clinic
Spirituality is concerned with a person‟s awareness of the existence and experience of inner feelings and beliefs, which give purpose, meaning and value to life.
– Dr. John Fisher
And perhaps the most thorough definition is from psychiatrist Harold Koenig:
“Spirituality is distinguished from all other things—humanism, values, morals, and mental health—by its connection to that which is sacred, the transcendent. The transcendent is that which is outside of the self, and yet also within the self…
Spirituality is intimately connected to the supernatural, the mystical, and to organized religion, although also extends beyond organized religion (and begins before it). Spirituality includes both a search for the transcendent and the discovery of the transcendent and so involves traveling along the path that leads from nonconsideration to questioning…”
If you have ever asked yourself what you believe and do not believe, what meaning there can be to this mortal coil, or what happens after death, I humbly suggest that you are a spiritual person.
Why is spirituality important to one’s health and overall quality of life?
The most comprehensive research I found is here. In his review of 601 peer-reviewed research papers, Dr. Harold Koenig found positive correlations between spirituality and these aspects of life:
If a pharmaceutical company offered such benefits in a pill, we would all be racing to our doctors for a prescription. Changing our behavior requires more effort than swallowing a pill, though. So it may seem difficult to make spiritual practices part of your life. But it only takes a thought – a single thought – to experience spirituality.
If you are still reading and haven’t run off to the nearest monastery for your own private retreat or clicked back over to the action page, then you, my friend, are a real skeptic. And I love that about you. Everything past this point is just for you.
Skills are Mandatory. Belief is Optional.
Like all the categories in the Quality of Life Initiative, spirituality is a skill that can be practiced and strengthened. The Royal College of Psychiatrists outlines the following skills to “help us to become more creative, patient, persistent, honest, kind, compassionate, wise, calm, hopeful and joyful:”
- being honest – and able to see yourself as others see you
- being able to stay focused in the present, to be alert, unhurried and attentive
- being able to rest, relax and create a still, peaceful state of mind
- developing a deeper sense of empathy for others
- finding the capacity for forgiveness
- being able to be with someone who is suffering, while still being hopeful
- learning better judgement, for example about when to speak or act, and when to remain silent or do nothing
- learning how to give without feeling drained
- being able to grieve and let go
That a quick how-to list. Below you will find more information on why developing the skill of spirituality improves your quality of life.
Sex is natural. Sex is good.
Sex is the way of nature. Just check out these tomatillo plants putting all their business out there in the open for every flying pollinator to see. It’s veggie porn!
Even Trappist monk Thomas Merton knows that sexual expression should be more than physical: “The act of sexual love should by its very nature by joyous, unconstrained, alive, leisurely, inventive and full of special delight, which the lovers have learned by experience to create for one another.”
And you’ve probably heard of the Kama Sutra.
Beyond the seemingly impossible physical positions represented in the book, sexuality is a relentless drive to creation and is universal. It should be no surprise that couples who identify as spiritual or religious often report a happy and healthy sex life.
Beyond the psychobabble that fills the positivity movement, psychologists are beginning to welcome spiritually-integrated approaches to treatment. For example, “forgiveness programs to help divorced people come to terms with bitterness and anger; programs to help survivors of sexual abuse deal with their spiritual struggles; treatments for women with eating disorders that draw on their spiritual resources; and programs that help drug abusers re-connect to their higher selves.”
And while some argue that religion brings comfort to the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, there is a growing body of research that examines the link between spirituality (from regular attendance and involvement in a specific congregation to mindfulness practices) and mental health.
In this most extensive review of literature, Koenig examines religious and spiritual practices as they relate to these mental health issues:
For years, mental health professionals assumed that religious and spiritual practices would worsen depressive symptoms due to some religions’ emphasis on sin, eliciting responses of guilt in some people. The research does not bear out that assumption. In the 444 studies reviewed, there was a greater than 60% incidence of spiritual practices providing relief of depressive symptoms. In 30 clinical trials, 63% of the studies “found that religious/spiritual interventions produced better outcomes than either standard treatment or control groups.” (emphasis added) With these types of findings, isn’t it worth trying to find some spiritual practices that you can do regularly?
It stands to reason that if religious and spiritual practices can reverse depressive symptoms, they can also provide some relief to those who have suicidal ideations or who have attempted suicide. Indeed, the results of 141 studies show 75-80% reduction in completed suicide, attempted suicide, and suicidal thoughts. That is remarkably high.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the research concerning anxiety shows similar results to that examining depression and suicide. Longitudinal studies found a 47% reduction in anxiety over time. In randomized clinical trials, “69% reported that a religious/spiritual intervention reduced anxiety more than a standard intervention or control condition.”
The use of spiritual practices to help people recover from substance abuse is a cornerstone of Twelve Step Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The Second Step reads:
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
The research supports this expression. Of 278 studies, a whopping 86% demonstrated a rise in spiritual practices correlated to a decrease in substance dependency. To me personally, the best news was that many studies (roughly 96) had a population of late adolescents or young adults, for many a time of experimentation with drugs or alcohol. If interventions can be found before dependency takes hold, perhaps some people can be spared interruptions to their education, careers, family life, and physical health. Koenig concludes, “Thus, the protective effects of [religious/spiritual practices] on substance abuse may have influences on health across the lifespan.
Chronic psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, are difficult to manage and have devastating effects on families, and possibly society. However, even with a small pool of 43 studies, 33% reported that as spiritual practices increase, psychotic episodes may decrease. Many mental health professionals posit that ruminating on oneself only contributes to psychiatric disturbances. Hence, deliberately turning your attention to a higher power, G-d, the universe, or simply life outside of yourself could provide powerful relief. I believe that any intervention that can ease the suffering of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia is an intervention worth trying, repeating, fine-tuning, and sharing.
The goal of many pharmaceutical-based interventions is to reduce symptoms. A reduction in manic episodes, depressive episodes, or suicidal thoughts is considered effective treatment in many cases. However, people diagnosed with bipolar disorder repeatedly report having a low quality of life, an area not generally not addressed in pharmacotherapy. To be clear, it is vital that people with this disease are kept free from the harm that can be caused in either the manic or the depressive episode. However, we humans all want to feel that we are leading full lives, and this is an area where spirituality can help. More recent research examines this gap and finds that “religious resources (beliefs, practices, cognitive framework, and participation in religious services or volunteer work) in order to adapt to challenging circumstances” had a positive influence on quality of life over the two-year period.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Are there those among us who wouldn’t claim to want happiness in our lives? Certainly we know people who take actions that will clearly make them unhappy. They are not aiming for unhappiness, I’m sure, and would still claim that happiness is a goal in life.
So how do you get there? This review showed that 82% of studies showed an increase in feelings of well-being or happiness in those who identified as having spiritual practices. Which leads me to conclude that if you want more happiness in your life, copy the masters. What are they doing that you can apply to your life? Obviously, if the national bestseller on happiness is written by a man who spent two years living alone in the Himalayas and you are a single mom living in an apartment complex in a large city, you can’t copy that person. What can you copy? Is there a belief system that you want to read more about? Is there a gathering place (synagogue, mosque, church, ashram,etc.) that you have been curious about and want to see what their get-togethers look like?
All In the Family
Family life has many challenges. Even Jesus’ parents left him behind after a family road trip for Passover! Spirituality is a deeply personal aspect of our lives, and our practices and beliefs will likely shift throughout our lives. We cannot force someone to believe what we believe, but we can model our own practices for our families. And the emerging field of relational spirituality indicates that we can rely on spiritual behaviors to enrich, strengthen, or transform our intimate relationships.
Many parents who attend religious services also raise their children in the same faith. This research stood out to me because of the differentiation between “religious” and “spiritual.” Most notably “children who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, quality relationships – both measures of spirituality – are happier. It would appear, however, that their religious practices have little effect on their happiness.” The researchers used a couple of measures of spirituality:
feeling that our lives have meaning, and
having quality relationships with others.
These measures represent a combination of the personal (our own meaning of life) with the inter-personal (relationship with others). So to see children aged 8-12 years report feelings of happiness in finding this balance between the individual and the communal brings me hope.
Given that spiritual practices or beliefs can improve mental health and feelings of happiness, it is no surprise that in a review of 39 studies, people identified their spirituality as a means of coping in these situations: general medical illness, chronic pain, kidney disease, diabetes, pulmonary disease, cancer, blood disorders, heart/cardiovascular diseases, dental or vision problems, neurological disorders, HIV/AIDS, systemic lupus erythematosus, irritable bowel syndrome, musculoskeletal disease, caregiver burden, psychiatric illness, bereavement, end-of-life issues, overall stress, natural disasters, war or acts of terrorism, and miscellaneous adverse life situations.
To cope means to deal with effectively. What does coping look like? Perhaps it means that you don’t scream at your aging parent because you are burnt out with your caregiving responsibilities. Maybe you work with your neighbors after a flood instead of feeling victimized by life. There is no one way to cope with a difficult diagnosis of disease, yet we all seem to know when those closest to us are not dealing well.
Live Long and Prosper
If you can effectively deal with stress, avoid substance abuse problems, ward off depression and anxiety, have a happy sex life, it makes sense that you can also live a longer life with spiritual and religious beliefs. Specifically, “those who attend religious services regularly may have an increased survival rate equivalent to the effects of cholesterol lowering drugs or exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation after myocardial infarction on survival.”
Did you catch that? Attending religious services regularly could be equal to drugs or exercise in terms of survival rates after a heart attack. Remember, this is a controlled study. Religious services aren’t for everyone, which is why it is important to note that in many of the studies cited here, researchers equated individual spiritual practices that were done consistently with regular attendance at a religious congregation.
I have presented this research in hopes of encouraging you. Many people like to know that whatever ways they are trying to improve their lives are scientifically proven to demonstrate improvements. Perhaps you have tried some practices in the past that you feel ready to return to, or perhaps you are inspired to try something new. If you need a few suggestions, start here. And if you have practices that you think would be helpful to others, I hope you will share them.