Introduction to Spirituality and Meaning
The last topic on the Road to Well-being, spirituality and personal meaning, follows quite naturally from the previous discussion of forgiveness. Forgiveness is often an important part of what comes to mind when we think of spirituality. More and more people are turning to spirituality to find meaning in their lives. For a growing number of folks, the daily pressures and rapid pace of change in our world has made them wonder about the meaning of life and if something has been lost in all of our busyness. These individuals are asking the big existential questions that used to be reserved for the philosophers. Questions such as: “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of human life?” With all of this interest in meaning, researchers are now starting to ask questions about the connection between spirituality and well-being.
This section is going to look more closely at what the researchers have found. We have chosen to organise this topic by separating spirituality from meaning. It is true that for some people, meaning and spirituality are closely connected to one another and they would consider the two inseparable. But for others, finding meaning in life does not necessarily involve a spiritual connection. Consequently, we have decided to treat them separately. The focus of first section is on spirituality, and the second section looks at finding meaning in life.
Spirituality and Religion
Although many people consider spirituality and religion, one and the same, it is possible and important to make a distinction between them.
Well-Being and Religion
Did you know that research shows that religious practice can help to keep you healthy? It’s important to note that most of the research has focused on Christianity, although there is some evidence that other religious practices convey many of the same health benefits.
There have been some fairly large studies that found that people who attend church regularly tend to be healthier and live longer than non-regular church goers. For example, one study found that regular church attendees had a 25 to 30 percent greater chance of living longer than those who never, seldom, or rarely attended church services (McCullough et al., 2000). Although divine intervention has not been ruled out as an explanation for these findings(!), there are other possible explanations for the relationship between religious involvement and improved health. These are described below.
Self-Assessment _ How To's
Taking Stock a worksheet to assess your current satisfaction with your spiritual beliefs and practices
If you feel that you would like to make a change in your spiritual or religious practices, use the Goal-Setting Sheet (as found in Port Hope) to set a goal for increasing participation.
George, L. K., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & McCullough (2000). Spirituality and Health: What we know, what we need to know. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 102 – 116.
Larson, D. B., Swyers, J. P., & McCullough, M. E. (1997). Scientific research on spirituality and health: A consensus report. Rockville, MD: National Institute for Healthcare Research.
McCullough, M. W., Hoyt, W. T., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & Thoresen, C. (2000). Religious involvement and mortality: A meta-analytic review. Health Psychology, 19, 211 – 222.
Thoresen, C.E., Harris, A. H., & Oman, D. (2001). Spirituality, religion, and health: Evidence, issues, and concerns. In T. G. Plante & A. C. Sherman (Eds.), Faith and health: Psychological perspectives (pp. 15 – 52). New York: Guilford Press.
For a further academic review of research on health and religion/spirituality see:
Plante, T. G., & Sherman, A. C. (2001). Faith and health: Psychological Perspectives. New York: The Guilford Press.
The Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health is another source of information on the relationship between theology and health. It is a leading institution in the world for scholarship in this area: www.dukespiritualityandhealth.org/
Researchers have started to look more closely at having a sense of meaning and how it is connected to our well-being. Studies have found that having material wealth beyond what is required to meet our basic needs is not associated with happiness. Of course, this is not a new idea; maybe someone in your life has even said to you, “Money can’t buy you love (or happiness)”. What is new is that we now have the research to prove it!
Researchers also have discovered a strong positive relationship between peoples’ mental and physical well-being and having meaning in life. Specifically, some studies have found that people who have a sense of life-purpose also report higher levels of well being and do not tend to struggle with issues like depression.
What does having a sense of meaning mean?
Meaning is difficult to define but it is generally thought to include three main components:
You will notice that these three components of meaning are very similar to the behaviour circle that you learned about on the Plains of Optimism. It appears that activities that provide meaning almost always comprise Motivational/Behavioural (e.g., component #1 above), Emotional (e.g., component #2), and Cognitive (e.g., component #3).
Below you will find each of these components defined by Wong, a leading researcher in this area.
“It requires that individuals have positive and mature attitudes toward life and self and that they lead a purposeful and productive life. There are limits to meaning-seeking if individuals are alienated from their community and the spiritual realm. Therefore, individuals need to get involved in and contribute to community. They also need religious [sic spiritual] faith that makes sense of the larger and difficult issues about life, suffering, and death” (Wong, 1998, p.118)
Victor Frankl, who wrote the opening quote to this section, managed not only to survive but to find meaning and purpose in his experience of being captured and held in a Nazi concentration camp. He survived this trauma and spent the remainder of his life sharing his wisdom through talking with others and writing about the importance of meaning in people’s lives. Frankl emphasized the importance of looking outside one-self. As you will read in the quotation below, Frankl believed that to find meaning, people need to shift the focus from being so caught up in themselves and their own needs to a more outward focus: more love, hope, compassion, and generosity directed toward others. This of course could include such things as working for a specific social cause, or engaging in tasks and pursuits that are outside of the self.
"A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how" (Frankl, 1963, p.127).
Frankl’s beliefs about meaning-finding have influenced the questions social science researchers have asked. Recent exploratory studies have found that people tend to agree that the following are common sources of meaning. However, as we stated earlier, the relative importance of what makes life meaningful varies from person to person. These are some common sources of meaning.
Personal Meaning Profile a questionnaire to help you discover your sources of meaning and a worksheet to help you explore why/how your #1 source of meaning gives you meaning
Miracle Questions A worksheet to stretch your thinking from the mundane to the meaningful
Wong, T. P. P. (1998). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (Wong, P.P.T. & Fry, Prem S. eds.). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Wong, T. P. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile. In The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (Wong, P.P.T. & Fry, Prem S. eds.). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York, NY:
Washington Square Press, Simon and Schuster.