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The science of spirituality explores the link between religion and well-being. Does maintaining a spiritual practice improve people’s biological health?
If you are curious about the health benefits and biochemical effect of religion, then this article is for you.
“Spirituality lies not in the power to heal others, to perform miracles or to astound the world with our wisdom, but in the ability to endure with right attitude whatever crosses we have to face in our daily lives and thus rise above them.”
– Sri Daya Mata
For years, philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers have returned to the following questions:
- Why are we here?
- What is the meaning of life?
- Does everything happen for a reason?
- Why do we suffer?
- Is there a best way to live?
To answer these questions, some people lean into religion, philosophy, art, and nature.
Others turn to spirituality and science.
In this piece, we offer a unique look into the scientific underpinnings of spirituality. Why separate the two fields when there is worth in exploring their connection?
What exactly is spirituality? There are many definitions, but here are a few:
- “The experience or expression of the sacred” (adapted from Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1967);
- “Certain kinds of activity through which a person seeks meaning, especially a “search for the sacred. It may also refer to personal growth, blissful experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension” (Wikipedia);
- “The search for transcendent meaning” as expressed in religious practice. It can be expressed in relationship with “nature, music, art, philosophy, or relationships with friends and family” (Astrow et al. 2001);
- “The search for meaning in life-events and a yearning for connectedness to the universe” (Coles 1990);
- “A person’s experience of, or a belief in, a power apart from his or her own existence” (Mohr 2006);
A lot of people equate spirituality with religion, but the two are different.
Spirituality might include peace and harmony with nature and humanity. Others feel spirituality via connection with their loved ones, their music or their art. Others find it in their values and principles.
Moral guidance allows many people to find meaning in the messy world we live in. This meaning helps some humans find purpose.
Spirituality and its expression are unique to each individual.
Spiritual or Skeptical?
In a world driven by science and evidence-based systems, are we losing the value of “spiritual” in place of skepticism? Do people have to choose between the two approaches?
Religious trends throughout history offer insight into the “science-verse-religion” dialogue. One trend shows how over time, many countries shifted from spirituality towards a society rooted in science.
Recently, Americans have become less religious, as measured by the frequency that they attend religious services and by the value that they assign religion in their life (Masci, D., Lipka, M., & Posts, 2016).
Despite this decrease, the number of people who identify as spiritual has increased.
There has also been growth in expressed wonder about the universe, and the deep quest for well-being, both explorations blurring the lines between spirituality and science (2016).
Data supports this trend: between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of U.S. Christians who report weekly wonder about the universe increased from 38% to 45%. There has also been a 17 point rise among self-described atheists (Masci, D., Lipka, M., & Posts, 2016).
This rise in spirituality has occurred among both religious and non-religious people.
So in America, even as religiousness decreases, spirituality shows an increasing trend.
Benefits of Spiritual Practice
If Western societies continue to increase the role of spirituality into discussions and practice, then health benefits may also follow.
According to the APA in 2014, people who report having a spiritual practice are more likely to:
- Live longer;
- Report higher levels of happiness;
- Experience more commitment to their romantic partners;
- Promote the healthy development of their children;
- Cope better with the death of a loved one;
- Have a lower risk of depression and suicide;
If you want more information before continuing, here’s a Ted Talk about Science and Spirituality.
Spirituality and Stress-Reduction
Dr. Emma Seppala, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism and the author of “The Happiness Track,” explains the mechanisms that can lead to these outcomes.
According to Dr. Seppala’s research, spiritual people engage in practices known to reduce levels of stress. For example, spiritual people are more likely to:
- Volunteer or donate to the poor; According to research, regular community service can serve as a buffer against the effects of stress, thus leading to longer lives;
- Meditate to cope with stress; 42% of spiritual people meditate when stressed rather than overeat or indulge in unhealthy coping behaviors. Meditation has all kinds of benefits—from improved health, happiness, and focus to decreased pain and depression;
- Live with a built-in community. After food and shelter, social connection is the top predictor of health, happiness, and longevity. Religious people are more likely to spend time with family and feel a strong sense of belonging to a community of like-minded people;
- Turn to prayer. Research suggests prayer helps people find comfort by helping them deal with difficult emotions, encourages forgiveness, and leads to healthier relationships;
Of course, these findings could also be placebo – we tend to feel better when we believe something will make us feel better.
Even if they are placebo effects, can it hurt to go to a yoga class, volunteer at a homeless shelter or attend a silent retreat? The benefits may be worthwhile.
Starting Your Own Practice
“Spirituality is recognising and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”
– Brené Brown
So how does anyone increase the role of spiritual practice in their life? There are many ways to begin and the positive psychological effects of stress-reduction are well-supported.
If you want to increase your spirituality, we have five ways to begin:
- Determine the type of people that you want to surround yourself with. Join groups and events where you are likely to find them;
- Volunteer or donate to a cause that is important to you;
- Learn to meditate. This doesn’t mean you need to sit cross-legged forever. There are many different techniques and types of meditation, it’s a matter of experimenting until you find one that suits you. You may even create a meditation routine specifically for you. (Don’t forget to share it in the comment section, we’d love to know).
- Use movement to connect with your own body. Research shows that “green exercise” decreases stress, improves mood and enhances focus. Whether walking, running, or practicing breathing exercises, take it out in nature.
- Create rituals. Which small activity increases your sense of calm? And how can you transform it into a daily ritual?
Remember to start slow, if you are adding a new practice to your daily or weekly routine. You are more likely to stick to your practice if you start small (APA 2014).
So whether you are walking outside, or adding meditation to your life, begin with a 10-15 minute practice.
Do you think there are other ways to connect science and spirituality? What are ways you find spirituality in your daily routines? Please leave your thoughts in our comments!
American Psychological Association (2014). Religion or spirituality has a positive impact on romantic/marital relationships, child development, research shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved here.
Brown, B. C. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Philadelphia, United States: Hazelden Information & Educational Services.
Hawthorne, D.M.; Youngblut, J.M.; Brooten, D. (2016). Parent Spirituality, Grief, and Mental Health at 1 and 3 Months After Their Infant's/Child's Death in an Intensive Care Unit. Journal of Pediatric Nursing; 31 (1)
Highly religious are most likely to report being “very happy.”Retrieved here.
Masci, D., Lipka, M., & Posts. (2016). Americans may be getting less religious, but feelings of spirituality are on the rise. Retrieved here.
Publications, H. H. (2016). Attending religious services linked to longer lives, - Harvard health. Retrieved here.
Religious service attendance associated with lower suicide risk among women. (2016). Retrieved here.
Spirituality, religion may protect against major depression by thickening brain cortex. Retrieved here.
The surprising health benefits of spirituality. (1991). Retrieved here.