When plagues hit, people turned to religion.
When war hits, people pray for and depend on one another.
When terror tries to steal life from us, we stand in solidarity and hope for the goodness of humanity.
Science is a very valuable part of humanity. However, it hasn’t yet explained it all. Stepping fully into a meaningful life requires a shift in the way we show up for ourselves and others.
Building the science of spirituality into a practice takes intention and effort. The benefits are far reaching, even if perfect scientific experimentation is somewhat elusive.
Read on to see how science and spirituality mix into what makes life meaningful and beautiful.
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Spirituality can be defined broadly as a sense of connection to something higher than ourselves. Many people search for meaning in their lives. The sense of transcendence experienced in spirituality is a universal experience. Some find it in monotheistic religion, while others find it in meditation.
While the understanding of spirituality differs across religions and belief systems, it can be described by finding meaning and purpose in life. Religion and spirituality are not understood in the same way, though they often overlap. Spirituality describes a much broader understanding of an individual’s connection with the transcendent aspects of life.
Seeking a meaningful connection with something bigger than yourself can result in increased positive emotions. Transcendent moments are filled with peace, awe, and contentment. Emotional and spiritual wellbeing overlap, like most aspects of wellbeing.
Self-transcendent emotions are linked to increased spirituality (Saroglou, Buxant, & Tilquin, 2008). It is hypothesized that spirituality is related to the broaden and build theory (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001). Though not all positive emotions stimulate a self-transcendent state, some increase with practices in spirituality.
Relationship Between Spirituality and Science
The relationship between spirituality and science is not necessarily contentious but has certainly had its difficulties.
Scientifically tracking emotions can be like searching for meaning in the shapes we see in the clouds. While the experience of emotions varies from person to person, the experience of transcendent emotions can be seen as more universal and is connected to spirituality.
Self-transcendent emotions connect us all through prosocial behavior (Stellar et al., 2017). Emotions like gratitude, compassion, and awe connect us all through their prosocial capacity. Transcendent emotions promote behaviors that connect human beings and stabilize prosocial connection (Haidt, 2003).
Self-transcendent emotions include:
These emotions have a particular capability of bonding individuals together. They are linked with higher levels of spirituality. As self-transcendent emotions are focused on others, more meaningful, purpose-filled interactions are possible.
Many positive psychology interventions are grounded in ancient religious and spiritual teachings, which are not typically included in treatment for psychopathology. There are empirically validated interventions for the following four virtues: hope, gratitude, forgiveness, and self-compassion (Rye, Wade, Fleri, & Kidwell, 2013).
By exploring the psychological theory behind these four virtues, science and spirituality can collectively serve more people.
The psychology of hope began in the 1950s. The explanation of hope was, at that time, focused on goal attainment. In positive psychology, it has expanded to explain the process of goal attainment better.
The theory includes both pathways to goal attainment and agency. Hopeful thought reflects the belief that one can find pathways to desired goals and become motivated to use those pathways (Snyder et al., 1991). Hope, by this definition, drives the emotions and wellbeing of human beings.
Depending on one’s world view, hope interventions can help find pathways to connect with the divine and improve one’s wellbeing. It will differ by religion and one’s understanding of the role of the divine in the agency of hope. Interventions that respect the individual’s worldview will clearly be more accepted and helpful.
The psychology of gratitude is conceptualized as a higher emotion connected to morality. Gratitude has been described in science as a prosocial moral emotion that is useful for two key reasons:
a) It functions as a moral barometer because it indicates when an interpersonal interaction is perceived as beneficial.
b) It reminds us that our power is limited (McCullough & Tsang, 2004).
The benefits of the practice of gratitude are far reaching, regardless of religious ideation.
The psychology of forgiveness has various definitions. The broadest definition is an adaptive human instinct activated in certain social situations (McCullough, 2008). By this definition, forgiveness does not require a future relationship with someone who has wronged you. It frees you instead of the instinct for vengeance.
The psychology of self-compassion has been empirically backed through the work of Kristin Neff. Self-compassion is conceptualized in three components (Neff, 2003):
- Expressing kindness toward oneself and viewing one’s shortcomings with a nonjudgmental attitude
- Connecting one’s experience of suffering with that of the collective human experience
- Become mindful of suffering without becoming attached or making it a part of one’s identity
These four virtues of hope, gratitude, forgiveness, and self-compassion are found in all areas of religion in various ways. Spirituality and science overlap in foundational ways to allow for the human experience to bond us in a collective experience. Interventions that value the unique worldview of each individual will be more impactful, as they allow for individual belief systems to be enhanced by science.
Science vs. Spirituality: Skeptical Take
It can be challenging to weave science and spirituality together.
Spirituality is universally connective in the realization that suffering is a part of human existence. Science and tough-minded folks often try to downplay the role that innate spiritual practice has on wellbeing.
Even well-meaning psychologists may have a negativity bias toward interventions offered in positive psychology (Sheldon & King, 2001). With a traditional focus on diagnosis and pathology treatment, less attention is spent on psychological health. Opening minds to interventions that encompass spirituality might help aid the individual in treatment.
There have been over 300 studies seeking to understand the relationship between spirituality and health (Thoresen, 1999). Yet, there remain many who question the validity of the impact spirituality can have on wellbeing. Many practitioners in the hard sciences have a healthy skepticism toward data and hypotheses that are correlational rather than causal (Feinstein, 1988).
One might say to the skeptics, though, “what will it hurt?” Discussing an individual’s spirituality in treatment could be a spark that they need to ignite their hope and motivation toward personal goals. A descriptive, rather than prescriptive, understanding of spirituality may do more good than harm, especially when action is later self-motivated.
6 Empirically Proven Benefits of Spirituality
Increased social stressors have been linked to physiological problems like respiratory illnesses and increased risk for cardiovascular problems (Thoresen, 1999).
Theorists as early as William James have hypothesized that an individual’s spiritual practices can influence physiological as well as psychological wellbeing.
With so many links to immune system boosts and higher survival rates in heart surgery survivors, it is important to have a look at the proven benefits of spirituality.
Though the causality of spiritual influence in physiological wellbeing is more challenging to prove, there is ample evidence to highlight the benefits one might experience by having a spiritual practice.
Most studies are correlational. However, most are also empirically proven across religions. Most people would agree that they don’t need experiential evidence to intuit that spirituality will help them have higher rates of overall wellbeing and life satisfaction.
A meta-analysis of over 40 independent samples reported that religious involvement is significantly and positively associated with longevity (McCullough, Hoyt, Larson, Koenig, & Thoresen, 2000). People live longer, have more satisfying, meaningful lives, and have lower rates of depressive states.
Though more studies need to be done to explore the mechanisms by which spirituality improves wellbeing, the studies that already exist indicate they’re at the very least related.
A study on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction showed improvement in overall life satisfaction and physical and mental health (Greeson et al., 2011).
Through participation in a meditation program, increases in spirituality lowered instances of depression. By becoming more mindful, a correlation with Gestalt psychology was noted, as a basis for reducing depressive thoughts in real time.
Several studies have shown an increase in job satisfaction with an increase in spirituality in the workplace (Akbari & Hossaini, 2018). How people explain their work matters in building a sense of honesty and connection to their jobs. By building interconnective experiences into a workplace, people will be more productive and have greater satisfaction in their work.
Levels of depression have risen in recent years, and pharmaceuticals have not had great success in eliminating the problem. A specific form of prayer that is said to have a healing effect on depressive symptoms is meditative/centering prayer (Johnson, 2018). The process used in treatment for this study is called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which was developed by Dr. Zindel Segal.
The Mindful Way Through Depression – Dr. Zindel Segal
Lowering blood pressure and hypertensive levels has been shown as a benefit of spirituality. A study on the effects of Transactional Psychophysiological Therapy showed a significant impact on patients who participated (Thomas, 1989). With proper training, nurses can help patients to lower their blood pressure by finding “inner peace.”
This spiritual concept is found through intentional speech and specific religious/spiritual connection in patient interactions.
Spirituality and Stress Reduction – Dr. Emma Seppala
Dr. Emma Seppala, the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism and author of “The Happiness Track” (2017), 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. Regular community service can serve as a buffer against the effects of stress, thus leading to longer lives.
- Meditate to cope with stress. Forty-two percent (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, authentic 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 assisting them to deal with difficult emotions, encourages forgiveness, and leads to healthier relationships.
Of course, these findings could also indicate a placebo effect. 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.
Higher levels of psychological resilience, positive emotions, and improved immune response have all been linked with spirituality. Spirituality is not a simple subject for experimental study. However, knowing that there is such a high correlation with physical and psychological wellbeing, most practitioners would agree that improvement in how care providers include spirituality in practice is warranted.
Starting Your Own Practice
Regardless of religious background, starting a practice to find moments of transcendence is highly beneficial.
Most human beings are looking for meaning in their lives. Forming connections in troubling times eases stress and depressive symptoms, and increases immune response.
Here is a rough guideline on how to begin:
- Start small and make new habits easy. There is no need to fully adopt a set of beliefs overnight. Becoming more spiritual can be as simple as staying silent for 5–10 minutes a day in a quiet, soothing environment.
- Commit. Love yourself enough to attempt to find moments of transcendent emotions daily. Through increasing hope, kindness, self-compassion, gratitude, and awe, anyone can start being more spiritual right away. All it takes is one decision to change perspective.
- Practice. Finding moments of transcendence to replace moments of frustration will not happen by waving a magic wand. Human beings must practice mindful attention to their thoughts, emotions, and behavior to find experiences in spirituality.
- Study. Explore others’ experiences of spirituality, whether through religion or personal journeys. Find something that you find relatable. Ask questions and get curious about people who have cultivated this beautiful way of being in the world.
- Develop an optimistic explanatory style. While getting curious and beginning to ask more questions, slowing down how you speak and exploring strong personally held beliefs can open your mind to more possibilities.
- Choose love and respect. With every interaction, lead with a loving and kind way of being. Even when dealing with awkward interactions, staying calm and in a loving mindset can deescalate the situation. Can you imagine the Dalai Lama yelling at someone? He interacts with skeptics and highly intelligent people who might seek to threaten his way of being in the world, yet he shows up every single time with love. He respects his interactions as opportunities to learn from alternative perspectives.
5 Tips for Your Business
Develop a space where spirituality is accepted. While there will always be differences in how people connect with their personal spirituality, having an open space for it to show up is an important place to start. Allowing for inclusion is a vital part of any business to begin to include spirituality.
Include gratitude. Businesses that have this attitude infused into their daily work typically thrive. Infusing gratitude in every interaction is a massive shift. For instance, when a difficult conversation is happening, thanking someone for their perspective is a grounding space for all parties.
Weave a mindset of integrity and service into every aspect of your business. The more an “others-focused” approach can be intertwined in business, the better employees and customers will receive the business. Decide how employees are expected to show up and who it is you’re serving with absolute integrity and honesty.
Include compassion in how your business gives back to the world. The most impactful businesses are those with a genuine contribution that they make to humanity. Imagine if marketing focused entirely on who needed a product or service as an act of compassion.
People who are inspired by the work they’re doing are more spiritually connected to the work they’re doing. Cultivate opportunities for your employees to connect with the higher meaning of the work you do. Hold space for each employee to find the value in the work they do and the effect it has on the world.
5 Books on the Topic
1. The Science of Spirituality: Integrating Science, Psychology, Philosophy, Spirituality & Religion – Lee Bladon
It covers a wide array of topics linked to spirituality and what traditional science might have the tendency to overlook.
Available from Amazon.
2. Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications – C. Richard Snyder
This work offers not only the basis of psychological inquiry into hope, but also measures and applications for practitioners.
Available from Amazon.
3. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – Jonathan Haidt
Woven together in this wonderful work is what each of us can connect with to bring about a more meaningful life.
Available from Amazon.
4. The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth – M. Scott Peck
This work brilliantly wove psychology and spirituality into a guidebook for a meaningful life.
Dr. Peck tirelessly worked his whole life to improve community and wellbeing.
Available from Amazon.
5. The Positive Psychology of Meaning and Spirituality: Selected Papers from Meaning Conferences – Paul T. P. Wong, Lilian C. J. Wong, and Marvin J. McDonald
The editors have covered a variety of topics to help understand meaning, purpose, and our way through the suffering that comes with being human.
Available from Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
The world is often in a state of tremendous suffering. Globally, humans are desperate to make sense of tragedy and psychological pain. From this vantage point, the only way through it is with spirituality.
The need to grow our understanding of the meaning of life, the purpose we have within it, and the love that we share for humanity is eternal. Stepping fully into what matters for humans will aid us in survival and into lives that are flourishing.
With appreciation, love, self-compassion, gratitude, and kindness, we might have a chance to shift into a state of improved wellbeing. Be responsible with your thoughts. Be responsible with your emotions. Be responsible in the way you treat others.
Be well, and love the ones you can.
Thank you for reading.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Meaning and Valued Living Exercises for free.
If you wish to learn more, our Meaning and Valued Living Masterclass© will help you understand the science behind meaning and valued living, inspire you to connect to your values on a deeper level, and make you an expert in fostering a sense of meaning in the lives of your clients, students or employees.
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