For many people, spirituality is a central component of how they experience life and view the world. For this reason, considering spirituality in the context of health is critical.
Spirituality is a way to find meaning, hope and inner peace in your life, but it can mean different things to different people. For many, it is tied to the practice or beliefs of an organized religion or faith to which they belong. For others, it may not be linked to a particular religion or faith, but can be found through music, art, or a connection with nature. Although spirituality is very personal, the role that it plays in our lives can inform – and transform – our health.
The relationship between spirituality and health
There has been a significant increase in interest in the relationship between spirituality and health over the past few decades. Many research studies have demonstrated that spiritual practices are associated with better health and wellbeing for a number of reasons, including:
Contemplative practice is good for you. Many of these practices guide you to direct your attention inward, to quiet the mind or to increase compassion or empathy. These practices may include prayer, meditation, yoga or journaling. Meditation and yoga have both been found to help decrease depression and anxiety, while prayer and journaling may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.
A spiritual community can improve your life. Many of us find community through participation in spiritual activities such as attending religious services or belonging to a meditation group. These communities can be sources of social support, which may provide a sense of connection and security as well as improved health and wellbeing.
Spiritual people make healthier choices. Some spiritual traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity. They are also more likely to engage in healthy habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.
Spirituality may help you live longer. A comprehensive review of research that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Although there is not yet consensus about the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health, most researchers agree that there is a positive relationship between religious/spiritual practices and better health outcomes.
(The above information was adapted from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing. Please visit their site for references, if interested.)
Finding spirituality in every day moments
As noted earlier, spirituality is very unique and personalized for all of us. There are many ways we can seek and find spiritual experiences – and sometimes they just occur on their own. This happened in a number of ways for me recently. It began with seeing two living legends in the music world – Marc Cohn opening for Michael McDonald. It was an awesome show – from Marc’s rousing rendition of “Walking in Memphis” to Michael opening with “Yah Mo B There” and closing with an encore (including Marc and his band) belting out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and of course, The Doobie Brothers’ “Taking it to the Streets” – it was both soul-stirring and soul-soothing. I have loved Michael’s velvety voice for as long as I can remember. And the songs he writes are meaningful, with themes of love and compassion for one another. Seeing him live was on my bucket list and I am grateful I had the chance to do so.
A few days after the show, I traveled to Wilmington to attend a health education conference. Since I don’t get to the coast very often, I was determined to find a little bit of time to walk on the beach. I don’t particularly enjoy the beach in the summer, but I love being by the water in the fall, my favorite season. After sitting almost all day during the conference, I went back to my hotel, grabbed my sneakers and made my way to Wrightsville Beach. I arrived in time to see some surfers making the most of the last hour of sunlight. I walked along the beach, enjoying the sound of the waves and the cool breeze on my face. I laughed at the woman trying to stop her dog from chasing the waves. I smiled at the little sandpipers as they hurried to pick their food from the sand before the water could wash them away. I then took a moment to stop and sit on the sand, taking in the sights and sounds, and silently expressing gratitude for my good fortune to be here, enjoying the splendors of this earth.
And last weekend, I attended Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist church that is my spiritual home. We have a new minister, and this was only my second time hearing him preach. His sermon was titled “V is for…” and he spoke about the violence and hatred we are seeing across our country and the world, through mass shootings and terrorist attacks. He reminded us of the Golden Rule: to treat others how we want to be treated. He invoked the spirits of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their collective messages of non-violent resistance. He reaffirmed that the only way to fight hatred is with love. It was a sobering message, but one that is needed now more than ever.
Three totally different experiences, all spiritual moments for me. I invite you to explore the ways that spirituality presents itself in your life and the impact it has on your health and wellbeing.