15 April 2011
From: William Bloom, Director, Foundation for Holistic Spirituality

The Personal and Collective Benefits of Spirituality

Any holistic description of personal and communal well-being needs to include the religious and spiritual dimensions.

In an academic paper published in January 2009, entitled ‘Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control’ which analysed eight decades of rigorous research, the authors concluded that religious believers manage better in life performed better, had better health and greater happiness, and lived longer than non-believers. (Michael E. McCullough and Brian L. B. Willoughby, ‘Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations and Implications’, Psychological Bulletin, January 2009.)

The challenge, of course, is to discern what it is in religion and spirituality that is so good for people. Psychologically and socially, there are obvious benefits deriving from the security engendered by a shared belief system, but these can also spill over into fundamentalism and conflict, diminishing social capital. Moreover the benefits of a shared belief and identity can also be found in non-religious realms, such as allegiance to sports teams or nationalities. Equally, the ethical and service values of religion can be found in agnostic, humanistic and atheistic cultures too.

If, however, following the examples of Ofsted, the Education Acts and NHS best practice, we separate religion from spirituality, the organised collective beliefs and worship from the personal experience, then we can begin to uncover some important dynamics that support well-being.

Treading carefully through a semantic minefield, we can suggest in a terminology that is broadly acceptable, that the beneficial core of spirituality is everyone’s personal capacity to connect with life’s wonder and energy, an experience which touches people’s hearts and delivers a sense of life’s magic. The circumstances in which people experience this connection vary considerably and include, for example, nature, the arts, sport, dance, cooking, meditation and many other activities and situations. Also, this spiritual experience varies widely too in its depth, intensity and duration, for example, from an overwhelming sense of wonder through to just a brief whisper of connection.

These experiences are good for people’s physical and psychological health.

More research is needed therefore into:

1. The kinds of circumstances that most easily support a sense of spiritual connection, such as nature, movement, caring for others, tranquillity, the arts and so on.

2. The neurology and chemistry of the spiritual response, already partially understood in the production, for example, of endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin; and how these support physical and psychological health.

3. How best to educate and enable people into using and cooperating with this innate ability for spiritual connection. This might include a personal audit of the circumstances that best inculcate this experience or learning some mindfulness techniques as already used, for instance, in cognitive behavioural therapy.

4. A better understanding of the shared cultural circumstances that engender a sense of spiritual connection and that can be used for community building and conflict resolution.

* * *

Spirituality also provides substantial benefits through providing a way of valuing life and your attainments in a way that is separate from material success.  Modern life is relentlessly simulating and filled with many levels of anxiety, such as finance, information overload and status. Spirituality, however, prioritises the development of compassion and consciousness, of heart and mind, rather than material status indicators.

As well as benefitting the individual, through validating their worth as a soul, this is also crucially important for a sustainable society in which individual and collective well-being can no longer be dependent upon an ever-increasing material wealth and use of natural resources. This is also crucial for a mature self-managed well-being.

More research, therefore, needs to be done, especially in education and healthcare, to explore and clarify how best to support people’s awareness of their spiritual growth and potential in contradistinction to the usual material and social criteria. We need to be enabling self-managed well-being.

There is also increasing evidence, which also merits further research, that being aware of your values, living a life of compassion and being of service to others, is good for your physical and psychological health.
To summarise, spirituality can bring us:

•    Connection with the wonder and energy of all life;
•    Values and the fuel to be good, do good and serve others;
•   Development of heart, compassion and consciousness;
•    A mindful, solid and inspiring strength to carry us through good and bad times;
•    A sense of meaning, personal integrity and purpose independent of material success and the opinion of others;
•    An embedded sense of wellbeing to support physical and mental health;
•    A deep enjoyment of life that is also fully present to its challenges and suffering.