The Many Health Benefits of Spirituality

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Many people enjoy physical and mental health benefits from acknowledging a spiritual dimension in life. This does not just mean being religious. Whereas around 60% of Australians in the 2016 census identified with having a Christian (52%) or non-Christian (8%) faith, many others would no doubt describe themselves as being spiritual but not religious. This description applies to around 25% to 30% of those in western countries.

As a psychologist I’m particularly interested in the relationship between spirituality and wellbeing. A range of significant physical health advantages can follow from having spiritual beliefs. These include reduced incidence of cancer, heart disease and substance abuse, improved recovery from cardiac surgery, a reduced incidence of mortality from all causes and greater longevity. Having spiritual beliefs can even slow normal cellular ageing as well as the progression of diseases when people are ill.

There is a long established association between having a spiritual faith and mental health. Religiosity tends to not only promote happiness, but also to reduce the incidence of depression and to aid quicker recovery from depression. It can help people be more resilient in the face of trauma and pain. Spiritual practices can offer additional benefit beyond the secular coping strategies that people might also draw upon.

Apart from particular religious or spiritual practices, people can benefit from any form of experience that they consider to be sacred or transcendent, meaning that it relates to an extraordinary dimension in their lives that goes beyond usual everyday experience and understanding. Objective research shows that when people perceive a sacred dimension in their life, or “sanctify” their experience, they may gain profound benefit. This includes sanctifying our life roles, such as our work, perceiving it as a calling (as 30 to 40% of Americans do), or viewing our primary relationship as “meant to be”, or favourably related to our destiny.

When people sanctify their experience and life roles they have been found to experience better general well-being, report greater purpose in life, spend more time and energy on their sanctified goals, have less internal and relationship conflict, have greater relationship satisfaction, are more collaborative in the face of conflict and are more resilient when facing hardship.

Dr Ken Pargament, a clinical psychologist from Ohio, is a leading light in research in the positive psychology field about the relationship between spirituality and wellbeing. He emphasizes the potential positive impact on wellbeing of experiencing “sacred moments”. Especially powerful sacred moments can leave people with powerfully uplifting memories that stay with them and inspire them for the rest of their lives.

In my experience, one of the most satisfying experiences you can have as a therapist is to witness how sacred moments have transformed someone’s life. Such moments can be very private, and sometimes people are reluctant to share them with others because they can seem so uncannily improbable that they think others will not believe them, or might even consider them mad. This may include circumstances where a person sees a vision or hears a voice of a deceased relative. I know of several examples where it involved a miraculous thwarting of a suicide attempt, leaving the person to then believe that they were meant to live, and going on from strength to strength.

When clients share such experience with a therapist, it can be another sacred moment between two of you. It helps lead to uncommonly quick, powerful and lasting change. When that happens, and a sacred or transcendent dimension is evoked in the therapy process itself, I call that “therapy with wings”.

On a more everyday level, it can be thoroughly worthwhile to appreciate the simpler sacred moments in our everyday lives, which typically lead us to feel such positive emotions as awe, gratitude, compassion and joy. They might be experienced through a sunset, a helping hand, a beautiful artwork, a job well done or an empathic sharing. I particularly appreciate synchronistic experiences, or uncanny and meaningful coincidences that seem to point to a higher consciousness or organizing force in the universe.

In particular, along with all these things that make life worthwhile, we might celebrate our own private or public acknowledgment of beliefs and things that are most profoundly meaningful and important to us. here’s little doubt that most of us are better off if we feel connected to something larger than ourselves.

For other articles and videos on mental health topics, see Chris Mackey and Associates Resources page.