Are Spiritual People Really Happier?

Everyone wants to be happy. We want to feel good about ourselves and what’s going on around us in our lives. Being happy seems to give many health benefits, both in physical and mental health. Happy people tend to suffer fewer aches and pains, faster improvement in long-term health conditions, and fewer mental health problems. There is a plethora of psychological studies that suggest that spiritual people are happier than non-spiritual people. 

First, it is necessary to know what it means to be a spiritual individual. Does it mean praying every night before going to bed and going to Church every Sunday? Or does it mean going on a pilgrimage and embarking on a spiritual journey? Not necessarily. Apparently, you don’t need to be religious to be spiritual. Then, does it mean you spend an exorbitant amount of money on yoga mats, LuluLemon workout gear, and that SoulCycle workshop you signed up for that you go to three times a year? No, not really.

The word “spiritual” is frequently used nowadays to describe practically anything, without much thought to what it really means. It has been integrated seamlessly into our vernacular. “Spiritual,” as the Oxford dictionary defines it, means “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Being spiritual means you are seeking a larger meaning behind aspects of our lives. Spirituality is a very broad term that means different things for different people. Quantitative tests that seek to find answers about ambiguous concepts are very difficult to execute, evaluate, and validate. As a result, it is not easy to answer the question of whether spiritual people are happier. That’s two ambiguous terms in one question!

It seems possible that spirituality uniquely predicts good health. Many studies have been conducted that suggest people who follow a spiritual practice or religion are indeed happier than non spiritual people. A 2015 survey conducted by the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands indicates that being a member of a religious organization is a powerful indicator for sustained happiness.  Similarly, a publication in the JAMA International journal suggests that meditation training is very helpful in ameliorating many negative conditions, including depression, pain, and anxiety, which will all in turn lead to an increased level of general happiness. 

Spirituality’s many positive benefits may be due to the sense of community that being spiritual entails. Research done as a part of the Nurses’ Health Study in the U.S. shows that participants who attend Church more than once a week had a 33% less risk of dying. They also reported higher levels of social support, as well as lower reports of depression and smoking. The community factor that is often associated with spiritual activity creates a sense of belonging in individuals, which is beneficial for both physical and mental health. A community may give individuals a great amount of emotional support, as well as a feedback mechanism. Being part of a community promotes self-discipline, as individuals feel more motivated to conduct healthy, good behavior (for example, not smoking) in order to feel better within the group. 

Developmental psychologist Susan Pinker proposes the Village Effect, in which she states that the number of meaningful connections we have, be it close friends or family members, is directly correlated to longevity. She observes that in Sardinia, men and women live to extraordinary ages, with both sexes having approximately the same life expectancy. She believes that this is due Sardinia’s small, tight-knit community. She explains how, in most modern cultures, men who retire from their work have fewer meaningful social connections than do women. Due in part to their lack of meaningful social interactions, men on average live shorter than women. However, in countries like Sardinia, both sexes are surrounded with close friends and family even at an old age, a lifestyle that correlates to similar life expectancies for both men and women. Pinker states that chronic loneliness, in essence, changes gene expression progressively, having negative effects on our bodies. In addition, she explains how neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin are released into the bloodstream more when we engage in meaningful relationships, countering stress and potentially improving the immune system, as well as creating an overall increased sense of happiness. The biggest takeaway from her discovery is this: having meaningful social interactions at a spiritual rather than physical level have positive effects on health and on happiness. Because who’s not happy when they’re surrounded by people they love?

It’s hard to prove that spirituality has a direct, positive correlation with happiness, but the statement likely has some truth to it. There is undeniable evidence that suggests that spiritual people seem to be happier and more hopeful. Perhaps we should attribute this happiness not to spirituality, but to factors that happen to be necessarily associated with being a spiritual individual, such as a sense of community or the comforting belief of the afterlife. So, if you want to be happy, which should be true, you might want to consider spiritualism. But take it with a grain of salt. 

References: 

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/spiritual

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_ways_happiness_is_good_for_your_health

http://spirituality.ucla.edu/docs/newsletters/4/idler_final.pdf

https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/is-spirituality-so-broadly-defined-that-testing-is-meaningless/

http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/16/health/religion-lifespan-health/index.html

https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life

Mary Yoshikawa