For centuries humans have been aware of the benefits of a spiritual life with many cultures having a concept of a transcendent force. (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) The father of modern psychology himself, William James, wrote extensively about the important role of spirituality on psychological and physiological health in daily life. More recently, with the establishment of the Positive Psychology Movement and the work done by the American Psychological Association, evidence is emerging to support this and exciting research on how human flourishing can be augmented through positive emotions like compassion, hope, resilience, awe, forgiveness, and gratitude, is providing psychologists with new insights into how spirituality can be applied to a raft of interventions. As an essential part of what it means to be human, spirituality is not only significant and universal but, it would appear, essential.
Despite this, the role of spirituality in well-being remains ambiguous, with many regarding it with suspicion, at best, or dismissing it as ‘woo, woo’ at worst. Spirituality, it seems, can be a very polarising subject. You don’t have to look far to see depictions of spirituality and religion in mainstream media portrayed in a questionable light. Depictions of radicalised extremists in the news or quirky, ‘new age’ characters like Phoebe in Friends, further galvanise this. As a society, we are happy to call on our spiritual reserves in times of loss or extreme suffering or to occasionally dabble in spirituality in the search for meaning and purpose but tend to park it there. However, the recent studies suggest we may just be missing a trick by doing this and this article seeks to unearth why.
Scientists define spirituality as a communion with the sacred or transcendent (Pargement et al, 2013) They regard the sacred as being something ‘beyond the ordinary’ and acknowledge that a search for this transcendence is integral to the search for meaning and purpose. (Mayseless and Russo-Netzer, 2017) Words related to sacred include higher power, God, divinity, universe, transcendence, and deep connectedness. Other definitions offer a broader understanding of our connection with transcendent moments in life like those magic moments which are filled with peace, awe, and contentment, like a ‘connective tissue’ of the human experience.(Neimiec, 2019) And what’s exciting is that it can be found in, not just the traditional practice and belief systems of organised religion, but in more secular manifestations like mindfulness, creativity, communing with nature and social connection to name but a few. In short, spirituality can serve as a unique lens through which to view the world.
Spirituality and religion can often be mistakenly lumped together, but there is a distinct difference between them. Simply put, religion is a specific set of organised beliefs and practices, usually shared by a community or group. Spirituality is more of an individual practice and has to do with having a sense of peace and purpose. Religion, therefore, can be regarded as a system of rules and beliefs in a higher power underpinned by faith, whereas spirituality is altogether more personal and offers greater agency.
So how is spirituality of benefit to us? Studies reveal that there is an undeniably strong connection between spirituality and happiness. According to Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory, which explores the role of positive emotions (positive affect) in human flourishing, greater emphasis on spirituality in our life, directly results in an increase in positive emotions. So, the more good stuff we put into our lives, like awe, appreciation of beauty and excellence, and gratitude, the more expansive we become and, quite simply, the more we grow as human beings. What’s more, an exciting side effect of all this goodness is the knock-on effect it has on our relationships (Gall and Guirguis-Younger, 2013). But it doesn’t stop there, other studies link having a deep spiritual belief system to longevity (Butner, date); good physical health (Koenig et al, 2012); mental well-being (Paloutzian and Park, 2013) whilst also acting as a protective buffer against stress.
Spirituality features prominently within the Character Strengths’ framework in positive psychology also. The seminal work of Seligmann and Perterson in this area found that across cultures and eras, spirituality came out, not just as one of the 24 character strengths, but also as an individual category in itself. Ryan Niemiec’s later work supports this. He believes that character strength practices like gratitude or appreciation of beauty and excellence can provide a synergy between science and spirituality by deepening a sense of well-being. He offers two pathways of spiritual integration within the framework of character strength work: the grounding path, in which character strengths can be used to deepen feelings of spirituality and the elevation path in which spirituality as a practice can be used to elevate character strengths. Like all elements of personal growth, it takes intention to cultivate happiness through spirituality, and this means a whole lot of self-awareness, consistent effort and mindset change to work towards being our authentic selves. It’s not necessarily easy but there are many ways to do it. Here are some of a few:
Jennifer Stellers, University of Toronto psychology professor, explored how awe, a major component of spirituality, affects physical health. In her research, she discovered that the more positive the emotions experienced in her study group, the lower the marker of proinflammatory proteins called cytokines and the better result for the immune system. Even more interesting is that in a follow up study that singled out awe from a range of other positive emotions like pride, love, joy, as the positive emotion, what emerged is that the emotion of awe had the most positive cytokine profile. In other words, the feeling of awe had the biggest impact on well-being. Sellars’ findings underpin studies conducted into mindfulness and well-being and the reprogramming of autopilot. What is significant in this study is what Stellars calls the ‘self- transcendent nature of awe’ which works to effectively to shut down the constant whirring of the part of our brains called the default mode network (the monkey mind) which, as the narrative hub, can directly feed our anxiety and contribute to human suffering. In this example, awe offers a direct short circuit to shush the monkey mind and directly reduce stress.
Other studies support this, including the work of Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology and Director of The Greater Good Science Centre at University of California, Berkeley. He discovered the connection between awe and nature can reap abundant psycho- spiritual rewards. Building on existing studies into spirituality and awe, Keltner found awe to be, not only significant for mind and body, but also for our social connection as an evolutionary mechanism. Actively seeking awe in day-to-day experiences can shift your mode of being. In one study where one group was encouraged to just look up and appreciate their surroundings: the trees, buildings etc, and a second group to go about their daily business, the awe students were less entitled, self-focused, and less materialistic in the follow up study. And all of them were inclined to help out a stranger. Keltner recommends trying what he calls an ‘awe walk’ to ignite our spirituality.
So, what exactly is an awe walk and how do you conduct it? There are lots of practical tips on Keltner’s Greater Good website but, in short, it’s this: Go out in nature, slow down, open up all of your senses and just experience it for its wonder. But it doesn’t have to be just walking, any interaction with the outdoors will suffice. Mandy Parker, co- founder of Liverpool’s open water swimming group, aptly named, The Happy Chilly Dippers, believes that the act of immersing her swim-suited body into the freezing Atlantic Sea of the Wirral Coast on a winter Wednesday morning is an excellent way not just to reset mentally and physically but also spiritually.
‘In a world where you can get strawberries in December, and winter can make us shrink in every way’ says Parker, ‘throwing yourself into the freezing sea is not only liberating but expansive, even transcendent. It fills me with awe and gratitude and pure unadulterated joy every single time’. And she’s not alone, if the numbers in their group, which started with a handful of brave souls almost two years ago and has burgeoned to a staggering five thousand since the start of the pandemic, is anything to go by. Similar stories can be found all over, not just in open water swimming, but in every outdoor pursuit from hiking to skiing.
If the Happy Chilly Dippers show us one thing it’s this, spiritual connection can take many guises. It doesn’t have to don the mantle of traditional religion. Study after study reveals that one of the easiest ways to engage with things outside of yourself is to do precisely just that, get outside of yourself. Human connection, whether it be in community groups, volunteering, social groups, book clubs, your workplace or the family is essential to our well-being. And if we ever needed any more evidence, we only have to look at the staggering figures revealing loneliness, depression, overwhelm and addiction on the rise in a society where it was already surging pre lockdown. Enhanced sense of connection forces you to get a perspective on daily stressors, to zoom out, which in turn enables you to look back on your own stressors and makes them less significant. Furthermore, being part of something bigger than yourself also serves to provide a sense of meaning and purpose. Parker concurs. Their group, she believes, is no longer ‘just about the dipping’ but also embraces a plethora of offshoots including theatre groups, book clubs, creative endeavours, to grassroots community activism, all offering untold psycho-spiritual benefits.
There are numerous ways to access spiritual electricity if an awe walk isn’t your cup of tea. The benefits of spirituality can be accessed as easily as visiting an art gallery or listening to music that moves you. Other methods can include mindfully noting the little things, those moments of wonder, like a stunning sunrise or a delicious morsel of food. American professor, lecturer, writer and podcast host, Brené Brown warns against missing these special moments when we spend our lives chasing the ‘extraordinary moments’ we think should make us happy. This lesson became all too apparent during lockdown when we rediscovered the delights of our own back gardens and homes. Banana bread anyone? The late, great professor of psychology and founder of ‘flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi agreed. Transcendence, his data discovered, can be found when you lose yourself in a task, be it something creative like writing or painting or something active like rock climbing or playing the piano; any occasion when time stands still and you become transported. Further ways to connect with your inner spirituality could be to join in on group activities; be open to signs from the universe; attend religious ceremonies; pray; meditate; journal; practise gratitude; engage in random acts of kindness; give to charity; the list is endless. But the first step? Realising that spirituality really does serve a purpose in your life in the first place. To acknowledge that the essential life force of all living things, in Dylan Thomas’s words, the ‘green fuze that drives the flower’, will open you up to new ways of being in the world, will enable you to thrive and not merely survive, or, to quote Merton, to be ‘all alive’.
Find Us Here!