Spirituality and Religion
In today’s lecture, we are going to discuss the psychology of spirituality and religion. The human condition is complex, and many factors contribute to our overall sense of well-being. For most of us, connection with a particular religion, or a broader sense of spirituality, is vital to finding greater meaning in our lives. Religion itself can be defined as the worship of a supernatural being through a system of beliefs, attitudes, and rituals prescribed by an institution (Victor & Treschuk, 2019). In contrast, spirituality is focused on some type of connection to the supernatural beyond the physical or materialistic world (e.g., God, mother nature) with the aim of finding a sense of meaning or connectedness (Balboni et al., 2022). Spirituality is less structured than religion with fewer customs and rules.
The vast majority of people worldwide state that they believe in a higher power. For instance, a Pew Research Center study from 2012 revealed that over 80% of the global population have a religious affiliation, with just over 16% people having no religious affiliation. The largest three religions are Christianity (31%), Islam (23%), and Hinduism (15%). More information on the study can be found here.
You may be asking, what does religion or spirituality have to do with positive psychology? Well, the answer is, quite a lot. For starters, spirituality has been found to contribute to overall well-being, including physical health. A recent meta-analysis (which is a large study that combines the data from many other studies) explored the role of spirituality and religion on mental health outcomes (Garson et al., 2020). It found a significant, albeit small, relationship between spirituality and religion and positive mental health (i.e., lower distress, greater life satisfaction, and a higher quality of life). The most important predictors of positive mental health were when participants stated that religion was important to them, and when people actively participated in religious activity. Similarly, a different meta-analysis found that spirituality and religion are linked with better physical health (George et al., 2000). In particular, religious participation was found to be associated with faster recovery time from serious illness as well as reduced mortality.
The research evidence is clear that spirituality can contribute to well-being, but how does it work to do this? We know from decades of research in psychology that social support is vital to happiness and living well. In fact, being separated from others causes us significant distress. Belonging to an organized religion not only brings spiritual benefits but is also an important source of social connection. It can provide a network of family, friends, and other loved ones who can support the person in good times and bad. However, besides the tangible social benefits, actively participating in religious activities can also give people a sense of belonging and a common purpose. Combined, these attributes of religious participation contribute to well-being.
In addition to social support, research indicates that other factors also play a role in well-being. One key feature is that spirituality and religion offer people a different way to cope with negative emotions. For example, a recent study in a sample of female aid workers found that those with religious and spiritual beliefs felt more grounded and calm in the face of work-related adversity. They also reported a greater sense of connection with a community (Ozcan et al., 2021). Likewise, among individuals who are experiencing a serious illness, spirituality has been found to increase their sense of self-empowerment and meaning, despite the uncontrollable nature of their illness (Baldacchino & Draper, 2001).
Finding a sense of meaning through spirituality and religion is a common theme. Positive psychology has identified many ways to create a sense of meaning (e.g., achieving goals, being creative, through our work, etc.); however, spirituality and religion can provide a sense of meaning beyond ourselves. In other words, the idea that we are part of something that is much greater than ourselves. This has been termed ultimate meaning, and it transcends our own individual lives to something that is shared by all of us (Mayseless & Russo-Netzer, 2017).
Finally, spirituality and religion also help to increase compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. Many of the world’s organized religions instruct their members to show compassion toward others. For instance, treating others with respect, performing acts of kindness, and charity are core features of a number of religions. Similarly, forgiveness for the discretions committed by others, as well as self-forgiveness, feature prominently in spirituality and religion. The ability to let go of pain caused by others, or guilt over our own mistakes, has been found to be important for good mental health (Peterson et al., 2016).
This concludes the lecture on spirituality and religion. Tomorrow, we will be discussing the concept of grit in positive psychology. See you tomorrow!
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