Religion, Spirituality, and Your Health
Throughout my life, I’ve been quietly observing and exploring religion and spirituality. I’ve attended various church survices and religious ceremonies (weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc.). I observed as a non-judgmental outsider but all the while I was silently processing my own beliefs. For most of my life I considered myself to be agnostic, someone who respects and takes an interest in all religions without personally subscribing to any one in particular. But a couple of years ago I was going through a rough patch, I was questioning a lot of things in my life – my career, my marriage, my sexuality – it felt as though I was coming apart at the seams. There were so many big feelings and big changes happening, my anxiety was at a record level high.
Then, one day, there was a little voice inside my head that whispered to me about exploring my own spiritual beliefs. I began meditating, reading books, and exploring different spiritual churches. I even went to a few psychics, tarot card readers, reiki practitioners, crystal shows… I was casting a wide net in hopes of finding what felt right to me.
All of this exploring paid off for me, my anxiety eased, my depression lessened, and things became more clear for me. This experience has created an even more intense curiousity in me to find out more about the link between religion, spirituality, and our health. Read on to find out more about what I’ve learned.
Over the past three decades there has been an abundance of research done to examine the effects that religion and spirituality have on both mental and physical health. The overwhelming result of all this research is a resounding agreement that regularly engaging in actions because of the spiritual benefit predict positive health outcomes more than virtually any other variable that has been studied.
What this means is that it isn’t simply having a belief system, nor is it the community engagement that often comes with being part of an organized religion, but just the act of having a spiritual or religious practice has been found to be consistently helpful, “leading to even a very notable decrease in death rates.”
As we have continued to learn of the positive impacts, religious participation has been declining. Millenials are the least religious generation in at least the last 6 decades – and I say “at least” because we just don’t have any earlier data to compare our current numbers to. And according to this post on Huffpost, this isn’t limited to the United States. According to Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies at Pitzer College, this is happening all over the world. “From Scandinavia to South America, and from Vancouver to Seoul, the world is experiencing an unprecidented wave of secularization.”
So if there are so many health benefits, why are people turning away from their churches in record-breaking number? That seems to be the million dollar question. As churches continue to close all over the world, it seems that nobody has a good answer for this question. Some feel that it’s related to increased individualism in our society. Others believe that that it’s related to a decline in effective church leadership. Yet others believe that it’s related to the widespread access to the internet. My completely unsupported belief is that organized religion has not done well to keep up with changing societal beliefs. As the world view of women, different ethnicities, and the LGBTQ community continue to move towards equality, religions who do not shift their views are being left behind.
If you are one of those who are living a secular lifestyle – how can you gain the health benefits?
According to the forward written by Steven C. Hayes, PhD, Foundation Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno in “The New Happiness: Practices for Spiritual Growth and Living with Intention,” creating a spiritual practice that doesn’t demand a belief in God or require participation in an organized religion might be the key. In this book, written by Matthew McKay, PhD and Jeffrey C. Wood, PsyD, they suggest that you start by seeking wisdom within, and then explore spiritual guidance from entities without – but this can be as broad as the universe iteself.
This can feel like such a daunting undertaking when you’ve not been involved in any sort of religious or spiritual practice. It’s important not to get bogged down by debates about which beliefs are superior and instead, engage in spiritual actions that feel right to you. In The New Happiness, they propose that you can still feel spiritually fulfilled without knowing the answers to all the spiritual questions. If you beliefe in God, that’s okay, but if you don’t believe in God, that’s okay too. The most important thing is to develop an action-based spiritual system.
Start by getting in touch with your inner values, I find that using journaling is a great way for many people to start doing this important self-work but you might also find it helpful to work with a coach. Once you have identified your core values, these will guide you in embodying your spirituality and to begin allowing it to inform everything you do and to affect the choices you make.
Once you’ve done that important internal work, find ways to incorporate quiet mindfulness – in organized religion this might look like daily prayer, in more open spirituality it may be guided or unguided meditations. There are many apps, videos and websites available to help you to start incorporating this practice. The important thing to remember is that this is a practice. Many people believe that meditation is easy and quickly get discouraged when their mind doesn’t quiet as quickly as they expect. Do not give up! Start out with doing simple breathing exercises for 5 minutes each day and then work your way up to longer guided sessions.
I have found through my own experience and through witnessing the spiritual journey of past clients, that once you get in touch with your values and set your intention to develop a spiritual practice that the path will begin unfolding before you. The important thing to remember is that this journey is different for everyone and there is no right or wrong destination.