“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 reflected on the big questions of life:
- 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 those questions some people turn to religion, to philosophy, to art or nature. Some people turn to spirituality or science. In this piece we look at the scientific underpinnings of spirituality.
Let’s start from the beginning, what exactly is spirituality? There are many different definitions of spirituality, 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” – can be expressed in religious practice or exclusively in relationship to nature, music, the arts, a set of philosophical beliefs, 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.
Some people relate spirituality to the deepest part of their beliefs. The part that allows them to draw meaning of their lives and the world we live in, helping them know they have a purpose to fulfil.
What we do know is that spirituality is unique to each individual, and how they choose to express it will therefore take on many different forms.
But in a world that’s becoming more driven by science and evidence based systems, are we becoming more spiritual or more skeptical?
More spiritual or more skeptical?
According to research, Americans, for example, have become less religious in recent years, measured by the level of importance they assign to it and the frequency of religious service attendance.
But there has been an increase of the number of people who claim to feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being, as well as a sense of wonder about the universe.
And what’s even more interesting is that this rise in spirituality has been taking place among both religious and religiously unaffiliated people.
For example, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of U.S. christians who report feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly, went up from 38% to 45%. And there has been a 17 point rise among self-described atheists.
So it seems that even though religion seems to be plummeting, spirituality is on the rise.
Benefits of spiritual practice
According to the latest studies, those that report some sort of spiritual practice are more likely to:
- Live longer
- Report higher levels of happiness
- Be more committed to their romantic partners
- Promote the healthy development of their children
- Cope better with the death of a loved one
- Have lower risk of depression and suicide
So how does this happen? 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 her, 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, leading to a longer life.
- More likely to meditate to cope with stress. Forty-two percent of highly spiritual people will meditate when stressed rather than overeat or indulge in other unhealthy coping behaviors. And, as you’ve probably heard,meditation has all kinds of benefits—from improved health, happiness, and focus to decreased pain and depression.
- More likely to have 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.
- More likely to 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. But it can’t hurt to go to a yoga class, to volunteer at a homeless shelter or attend a silent retreat and experience firsthand the benefits.
Start 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 what can you take away from this to start your own spiritual practice and increase your sense of peace and well-being? Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Determine the type of people that you want to surround yourself with and join groups where you are likely to find them.
- Volunteer or donate to a cause that is dear to you.
- Learn to meditate, that doesn’t mean you have to sit cross legged for half an hour, there are so many different techniques and types of meditation, it’s a matter of experimenting until you find one that suits your specific needs and characteristics or maybe you even come up with your own. (Don’t forget to share it in the comment section, we’d love to know.)
- Move, get connected to your own body. Research shows that “green exercise” decreases stress, improves mood and enhances self-control and focus. So determine your choice of physical exercise and take it out in nature.
- Create rituals. Which small activity increases your sense of peace and well-being the most? And how can you transform it into a daily ritual? Remember to start slow, if you chose meditation start with a 10 or 15 minute practice, as you’re more likely to stick with it.
Want some visual? Here’s a Ted Talk about Science and Spirituality.
American Psychological Association (2014). Religion or spirituality has 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 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.