The last topic on the Road to Well-being, spirituality and personal meaning, follows quite naturally from the previous discussion of forgiveness. Forgiveness is often an important part of what comes to mind when we think of spirituality. More and more people are turning to spirituality to find meaning in their lives. For a growing number of folks, the daily pressures and rapid pace of change in our world has made them wonder about the meaning of life and if something has been lost in all of our busyness. These individuals are asking the big existential questions that used to be reserved for the philosophers. Questions such as: “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of human life?” With all of this interest in meaning, researchers are now starting to ask questions about the connection between spirituality and well-being.
This section is going to look more closely at what the researchers have found. We have chosen to organise this topic by separating spirituality from meaning. It is true that for some people, meaning and spirituality are closely connected to one another and they would consider the two inseparable. But for others, finding meaning in life does not necessarily involve a spiritual connection. Consequently, we have decided to treat them separately. The focus of first section is on spirituality, and the second section looks at finding meaning in life.
Spirituality and Religion
Although many people consider spirituality and religion, one and the same, it is possible and important to make a distinction between them.
Similarities — Spirituality and religion both focus on the sacred or divine (for example, divine being, higher power, God, Allah, or ultimate reality as perceived by the individual). Most people who are spiritual or religious also have a set of beliefs about the higher power or ultimate reality. In addition, there are usually specific practices that followers use to attain or enhance a sense of the sacred, or to experience an altered state of consciousness such as prayer or meditation.
Differences — The major difference is that religion is viewed as being linked to formal religious institutions, whereas spirituality does not depend upon a collective or organisational context (Pargament, 1997). In other words, I can be spiritual and go or not go to church, but generally I can’t be religious and not go. This is evident from the associations that we have to these terms. If we say that someone is deeply religious, we tend to assume that person regularly attends church (part of a formal institution). If we say that a person is very spiritual, we tend to assume that person has some strong beliefs and practices, but we would not necessarily assume that he/she attended church.
The distinction between spirituality and religion is important, because most of the research concerning the well-being benefits of spirituality has focused on religious beliefs and practices. Religious affiliation has been more researched due to the relative ease of finding large groups of people who engage in common practices and from whom data can be collected, and as a result we will focus on those research findings.
Well-Being and Religion
Did you know that research shows that religious practice can help to keep you healthy? It’s important to note that most of the research has focused on Christianity, although there is some evidence that other religious practices convey many of the same health benefits.
There have been some fairly large studies that found that people who attend church regularly tend to be healthier and live longer than non-regular church goers. For example, one study found that regular church attendees had a 25 to 30 percent greater chance of living longer than those who never, seldom, or rarely attended church services (McCullough et al., 2000). Although divine intervention has not been ruled out as an explanation for these findings(!), there are other possible explanations for the relationship between religious involvement and improved health. These are described below.
Possible Explanations for Relationship Between
Religiosity and Improved Health
Virtuous Behaviour — It is thought that the virtuous behaviours encouraged by churches help people to engage in healthy acts and behaviours (e.g., forgiveness). Likewise, religious organisations usually discourage people from participating in non-healthy and harmful behaviours like alcohol and drug use, sexual promiscuity, and crimes. However, researchers have a way of removing the effects these have by holding them constant. This means that they can determine if there is still a connection when the effects of virtuous behaviours have been removed. Guess what? They found that there are STILL health benefits present to church attendance. This means that there must be other factors responsible for the relationship between religious involvement and improved health.
Social Support — As discussed in the City of Social Connection, social support is very beneficial to well-being, and churches have a reputation for being a great source of social support. Therefore, it is quite possible that the support found by people who attend church regularly may explain, at least in part, why people who attend church appear to be healthier. There are fewer studies that have looked at this particular question, but those that have, report a connection between church attendance, social support, and health benefits.
Meaning and coherence — It is also theorized that regular religious involvement may go a long way in helping people to overcome their anxieties about life and death. It may help people to gain a sense of meaning and purpose in their current life and in a possible afterlife. In other words, peoples’ reasons for living may become more clearly defined or accepted in the context of religious or spiritual practice. This concept of meaning is further explored, separately, in the next section.