Spirituality and Optimal Health
So, you’re on the road to optimal health. You’re rested and well-exercised. Your car is full of nutritious food and passengers you adore. You know what to do in times of adversity. You’re surrounded by natural beauty. So, why do you feel like something’s missing? The word “why” lingers in your mind just a little too long, and suddenly you understand. All the material necessities of your journey have been met, but you’re still not sure why you got on the road in the first place. What’s the connection between spirituality and optimal health?
In this world, we are often encouraged to just put our heads down and keep driving ahead. Work and forward motion become their own purpose, and this might be sufficient for a while. But, ultimately, if you are someone who really thinks about who they are and where they are going, this will not be enough for you.
So, how do you go about answering the big questions? Who are you? What’s the meaning of life? What’s the point to your existence? Everyone discovers answers to these questions by a different route. Like destinations, aspirations in life are not one-size-fits-all. Ideally, aspirations are tailor-made for you, by you. Finding your purpose in life can prove challenging. But, you can gain clarity and start heading in the right direction by asking yourself the right questions. Read on to discover the connection between spirituality and optimal health.
What is Spirituality?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Spirituality is a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves—it helps a person look within and understand themselves while also figuring out the greater answer of how they fit in to the rest of the world. In other words: It helps people understand their interpretation of the meaning of life.”
Spirituality subsumes both outer and inner experiences. Spirituality is “outer” as it’s expressed in all sorts of visible behaviors and practices. Daily reading and devotions. Participation in ceremonies and rituals. Meditation. Prayer. Engagement with fellow travelers and fellowship communities. Spiritual book groups. Pilgrimages. Retreats.
Spirituality is “inner” because it has to do with beliefs and values that underpin and direct the ways that people live. The “inner” aspect of spirituality becomes apparent you consider questions such as:
- What do you care about?
- What really matters to you?
- What sustains you and keeps you going?
- Where do you find strength?
- What is your life about?
- What do you hope the legacy of your life might be?
- What do you take pride in?
- What kind of person do you hope to be… what are the qualities in how you live your life that are most important to you?
These are spiritual questions. Whether or not they are framed with any specifically spiritual language, such questions bring into focus some fundamental beliefs and values about how people live their lives.
Does spirituality affect health?
Spirituality and Optimal Health
- Spirituality is intimately related to health, wholeness and well-being
- Spirituality mediates choices in health behaviors
- Spirituality often frames the way that people cope with adversity and pursue the journey toward wellness/wholeness
The essential components of spirituality often emerge when people face a health crisis. For example, a 38-year-old divorcee faces the loss of her physical functioning and her vocation when she’s severely injured in an automobile accident. A 52-year-old woman faces taking insulin and completely changing her diet after she’s diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. A 62-year-old human resources professional faces job loss after a stroke compromises her ability to communicate.
During a time of crisis, people often ask themselves, “How will I carry on?” The particulars of such stories are different, but they often share some common themes.
- Where do you find meaning and dignity in the face of losses and challenges?
- What does it mean to be “healthy?”
- What does it mean to be “whole?”
- What does it mean to live life well?
- What really matters in your life?
For example, the woman injured in the car accident might find meaning and coherence in her accident from the impetus to be a better mother. The diabetic woman may aim to be a positive example for her early-adult daughter, who is also “big” and may be on a similar path. The HR professional may find comfort and even joy in her ability to love her husband and even make him laugh.
Why is spiritual health so important?
The Role of Identity in Spirituality and Optimal Health
Significant challenges and transitions often entail an “identity crisis” that requires a meaningful shift in thinking about the self. An identity crisis can occur when an individual assumes a new status or role in life. Some identity statuses we welcome like being whole, healthy, and able-bodied whereas others we shun like becoming a cripple, a diabetic, or a stroke victim. Whether deemed positive or negative, adjusting to new roles can take time and concerted effort to achieve.
How does spirituality affect mental health?
The Role of Purpose in Spirituality and Optimal Health
Studies suggest that having a sense of purpose helps you to live a longer and healthier life, even when looking across cultures and controlling for known predictors of longevity, like cigarette smoking. For example, studies have found that for every one-point increase on a six-point scale measuring purpose in life, adults with heart disease have a 27% decreased risk of having a heart attack over a two-year period. For older adults, a one-point difference in purpose can mean a 22% decreased risk of having a stroke. A recent study found that the positive health effects of having a purpose in life also extend to younger adults. It’s not clear how purpose in life would have these impacts; but it’s possible that there is some kind of interaction with stress, which has already been shown to affect us at a cellular level.
In summary, spirituality provides you with systems of faith, beliefs, values, ethics, and morals that, in turn, give direction, purpose, and meaning to your life. These aspects of your life become especially useful during times of crisis and transition.
Download: Spirituality Worksheet
Resource: Self Authoring Program
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Disclaimer: The information provided through this Website is for educational and informational purposes only and solely as a self-help tool for your own use. If stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness, please consult with a suitable health care professional.
- Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1482–1486. doi: 10.1177/0956797614531799
- Kim, E. S., Sun, J. K., Park, N., Kubzansky, L .D., & Peterson, C. (2013). Purpose in life and reduced risk of myocardial infarction among older U.S. adults with coronary heart disease: a two-year follow-up. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 36(2):124-133. doi:10.1007/s10865-012-9406-4
- Kim, E. S., Sun, J. K., Park, & Peterson, C. (2013). Purpose in life and reduced incidence of stroke in older adults: The Health and Retirement Study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 74(5), 427-432. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.01.013
- Sawatzky, R., Ratner, P. A., & Chiu, L. (2005). A meta-analysis of the relationship between spirituality and quality of life. Social Indicators Research, 72(2), 153–188. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-004-5577-x