What brings you joy and contentment? Is it your family, work, faith or volunteer activity? Or it could be a hobby, such as music, art, woodworking, gardening, yoga, or hiking. We might be surprised to learn that what gives our lives meaning can also help us live longer. When we engage in tasks and activities that tap into our unique talents, it brings us a deep sense of joy and satisfaction, yet we rarely stop to consider where it comes from. What exactly are we using to generate these feelings?
When we get lost in an activity, get emotional when looking at a baby, or feel awe and wonder when we look up at the stars, we may become aware of something beyond ourselves and our own experiences. Practicing intentional awareness of these feelings, and how they bring us a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, is associated with longer, healthier lives. This can happen in faith-based practices, through our relationships with others, or through spending time in nature. It’s important to note that it doesn’t have to be through organized religion, and these practices may not be readily acceptable to everyone, depending on one’s life experiences.
Research tells us that people who regularly engage in spiritual practices such as mindfulness, prayer, meditation, or attend a faith group are significantly healthier and live four to 14 years longer than those who don’t. According to numerous studies, spirituality has been linked to improved overall health, better recovery from disease (including cancer), and even a protective factor against disease.
What is spiritual practice?
Spirituality, faith, and religion are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things to different people. The common denominator associated with better health is the regular habit of experiencing that we are part of something greater. For some, it is best explained or understood in the context of nature or our relationship to each other. For others, it is a divinely ordered universe with a Creator. Regardless, it gives purpose and meaning to our lives. When we live in this way, we are more grateful, have a greater sense of satisfaction in life, and we are more resilient to the challenges and hardships that come our way.
The Link Between Spirituality and Health
A growing body of research shows a consistently positive relationship between spiritual or religious practice and health and longevity. The correlation is so strong that researchers at Harvard University concluded that “spirituality should be integrated into the care of serious illness and overall health.” A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that persistence A spiritual practice affects immune function, hormones, psychological function, and can prevent social isolation and promote healthy behaviors. The research is compelling but rarely discussed in the context of public health or Western medicine. There are growing calls to change this situation.
Many spiritual practices, such as mindfulness and faith traditions, have been around for centuries, some thousands of years. The persistence of these traditions proves that they meet a need in the lives of many. After all, useful things stand the test of time. However, it is important to consider that what works in these practices is that they make us aware that there is something greater, beyond our earthly existence, beyond our individual needs and desires, that connects us all in Together, generate a sense of appreciation, belonging and a deeper understanding. This is the common ground to which spiritual practices point. Here’s what new research on spirituality tells us about staying healthy and helping us achieve better health outcomes when we’re sick. When we live with deeper purpose and meaning, we tap into something beyond ourselves that gives us hope and inspiration.
Starting any new practice can be challenging, especially if past experience has been poor. It’s important to explore what works for you. It could be joining (or rejoining) a faith group, journaling, meditation, art, or spending dedicated time in nature. Remember that spirituality goes far beyond organized religion (although such structures and traditions work well for some) and can include anything that fills you with a sense of purpose and belonging, including spiritual networks, tight-knit A social group, volunteering or personal practice to connect with. Think about what gives you purpose, and try to spend only a little time each week on it.
Religious Engagement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice by Mueller, Plevak, and Rummans
Spirituality, Religion, Aging, and Health in a Global Perspective: Review by Zachary Zimmer
Spirituality Linked to Better Health Outcomes, Patient Care at Harvard School of Public Health
Religious engagement, spirituality, and medicine: PS Mueller’s impact on clinical practice
More Americans Now Say They’re Spiritual But Not Religious Michael Lipka and Claire Gesevitz
Marcelo Saad and Roberta de Medeiros Religion and Longevity: Implications for Public Health