There is a growing body of evidence indicating that spiritual practices are associated with better health and wellbeing for many reasons, including:
Contemplative practice is good for you.
Contemplative practices are activities that guide you to direct your attention to a specific focus—often an inward-looking reflection or concentration on a specific sensation or concept. Many spiritual traditions have a long history of using contemplative practices to increase compassion, empathy, and attention, as well as quiet the mind.
- Meditation can induce feelings of calm and clear-headedness as well as improve concentration and attention. Brain researcher Richard Davidson’s research shows thatmeditation increases the brain’s gray matter density, which can reduce sensitivity to pain, enhance your immune system, help you regulate difficult emotions, and relieve stress. Mindfulness meditation in particular has been proven helpful for people with depression and anxiety, cancer, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
- Prayer may elicit the relaxation response, along with feelings of hope, gratitude, and compassion—all of which have a positive effect on overall wellbeing. There are several types of prayer, many of which are rooted in the belief that there is a higher power that has some level of influence over your life. This belief can provide a sense of comfort and support in difficult times—a recent study found that clinically depressed adults who believed their prayers were heard by a concerned presence responded much better to treatment than those who did not believe.
- Yoga is a centuries-old spiritual practice that aims to create a sense of union within the practitioner through physical postures, ethical behaviors, and breath expansion. The systematic practice of yoga has been found to reduce inflammation and stress, decrease depression and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and increase feelings of wellbeing.
- Journaling is another, often overlooked, contemplative practice that can help you become more aware of your inner life and feel more connected to your experience and the world around you. Studies show that writing during difficult times may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.
A spiritual community can improve your life.
Many spiritual traditions encourage participation in a community. Spiritual fellowship, such as attending church or a meditation group, can be sources of social support which may provide a sense of belonging, security, and community. Strong relationships have been proven to increase wellbeing and bolster life expectancy, which is perhaps why one study found a strong association between church attendance and improved health, mood, and wellbeing.
Spiritual strength can help you overcome hardships.
Dr. Steven Southwick’s book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, describes how some people overcome trauma—such as abduction, war, and imprisonment—by seeking comfort in spirituality or religion. He gives examples where spiritual people find ways to “meet the challenge and continue with purposeful lives…they bounce back and carry on.”
Having a strong spiritual outlook may help you find meaning in life’s difficult circumstances. Southwick describes the story of a woman who overcame the post-traumatic stress following an abduction and rape by believing that her trauma “served as a platform for her personal development, forcing her to evaluate her life and gradually change it for the better. She credits her ability to move forward with her life…to her dedication to spirituality.”
The spiritual practice of recognizing the interconnectedness of all life can also help buffer the pain that comes with difficult experiences. Researcher Kristin Neff says that “if we can compassionately remind ourselves in moments of falling down that failure is part of the shared human experience, then that moment becomes one of togetherness rather than isolation. When our troubled, painful experiences are framed by the recognition that countless others have undergone similar hardships, the blow is softened.”
Spiritual people make healthier choices.
Adhering to a particular spiritual tradition may bring an indirect health benefit because many traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that perhaps because of these tenets, people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity, and they are more likely to engage in preventative habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.
Spirituality may help you live longer.
An exhaustive review that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Giancarlo Lucchetti, lead author of the study, calculates that the life-lengthening benefits of spirituality can be compared to eating a high amount of fruits and vegetables or taking blood pressure medication. Although some researchers have suggested that the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health is exaggerated, most researchers agree there is a positive relationship between religious and spiritual practices and better health outcomes.
Forgiveness is good medicine.
Letting go of blame and negative feelings after a hurtful incident is a practice that is reflected by a number of spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. Modern science shows the health benefits of forgiveness are numerous: better immune function, longer lifespan, lowered blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, and fewer feelings of anger or hurt.