Here we summarise some of the research which links feelings of spirituality to various aspects of human well-being and health.
In 2008 the internationally acclaimed happiness researcher, Ed Diener, and his son Robert Biswas-Diener published a book called Happiness: unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. In it they review much of the literature on happiness. They argue that studies often show that religious people are happier but that the differences are often small and do not apply to all nations or to all religions. For example, people in the USA are often happier if they are religious but this is not true of some other countries. They assert that religious beliefs are diverse and whether they make believers happier depends to a great extent on the actual beliefs. So, for example, they found that 'people who believe in hell and the devil tend to be slightly less happy that those who believe only in heaven.' (115)
This difference led these two researchers to look for the 'active ingredient' in religion that often translated into increased happiness. They conclude that religion can be important for six broad reasons:
- It can offer 'psychological comfort' related to death and questions of the afterlife.
- Religion can also encourage people through church activities, for example, to provide social support for one another.
- Religion can provide meaning and a sense of belonging.
- A religous upbringing can help provide a stable basis for children and supply them with good values for life.
- Religion can provide appealling rituals.
- Religion can, as we saw in the preceding section, encourage the experience of positive emotions such as forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, awe and transcendence.
As Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener point out, religion is simply about encouraging people to live well but these messages can also be heeded by those who are agnostic or atheistic. However, they are more likely to be given prominence by people with a spiritual or a religious orientation to life. They write:
We all need to cultivate within ourselves and our families the emotions of love, compassion and gratitude. Decentering oneself away from extreme selfishness in service to others and the world can make the individual happier, and also will likely make those around the person happier. For many people, religion can bring positive attitudes - meaning, love, gratitude, security and hope. It is these attributes that religious and non-religious individuals alike need to develop, and this is an important lesson that religions can teach us. If you develop a spiritual approach to life that includes positive emotions, and not focusing exclusively on oneself, your psychological wealth will increase immeasurably. (126) .
Spirituality, young people and happiness
Psychologist Mark Holder and colleagues at the University of British Columbia in Canada discovered in their research with children that 6.5 to 16.5 per cent of children's happiness is attributable to spirituality. This research, published in 2008, was the first to establish the importance of spirituality to children. To put the importance of spirituality in context, this reseach showed that money only accounts for one per cent of children's happiness and whether children attended public or private schools had no effect. The researchers explained the reasons for their findings by emphasising the link between spirituality and meaning, hope, positive social norms and a social network. The research was undertaken with children aged 9-12.
Further research by Holder and colleagues concluded that spirituality makes young people happy, but religion does not. This research was conducted with children aged 8 to 12. The study specificall showed that those children who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, quality relationships are happier than those who do not. The researchers see meaning and quality of relationships as aspects of spirituality. By contrast, religious practices were found to have little effect on children's happiness. Previous research has shown a connection between well-adjusted and well-behaved children and religion, but that is not necessarily the same as happiness.
Holder suggests: 'Enhancing personal meaning may be a key factor in the relation between spirituality and happiness.' This means that strategies designed to increase personal meaning in children — such as expressing kindness towards others and noticing acts of kindness, as well as doing good and volunteering — may help to make children happier.
Teenagers, spirituality and depression
A research project by Dr. Michael Yi and Sian Cotton at the University of Cincinnati revealed links between spirituality and happiness among teenagers.
The researchers compared teenagers with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with their healthy peers. Their analysis showed that while spirituality helped all of the young cope with life’s challenges, but it was especially helpful for the ones with IBD.
Yi said: “One of the most important predictors of poorer overall quality of life for both the healthy and the sick teens was having a poorer sense of spiritual well-being. It is important to point out that personal characteristics such as self esteem, family functioning and social support were similar between adolescents with IBD and their healthy peers.”
Cotton's analysis of the same 155 adolescents found that higher levels of spiritual well-being were associated with fewer depressive symptoms and better emotional well-being.
The results were detailed in online versions of the Journal of Pediatrics and the Journal of Adolescent Health.