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Spirituality, Meaning, and Well-being

written by Lisa Sansom 16 July 2012

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

Articles by Lisa are here.

Recently, the Congregation of Notre Dame (CND) residence closed its doors in our local community. The CND sisters have been heavily involved in education and health care, with their reach going back as far as 1841 when they opened a school whose namesake still exists today, though in a much more modern building. I was honored to be at the service commemorating the history of the CND. It was a spiritual experience just to be in the presence of so many devoted women, most with thoroughly grey hair, who were called to a lifetime of service and now had to leave their community to go live elsewhere for very practical financial reasons.

The next day, I attended a business workshop given by an organizational consultant whose work has spanned nearly four decades. The workshop opened with a Métis elder blessing our gathering and invoking the spirits of the ancestors to help us learn and network as the day progressed. The elder was involved as a participant during the entire day, and the feeling of calm and peace was palpable in her presence.

While spirituality is definitely an intangible quality, it seems to radiate. In my experience, those who are high in spirituality are also imbued with a strong, contagious, positive glow that others can feel. These people seem to navigate life calmly and serenely with the winds of spiritual awareness and faith billowing their sails. But is this how it really works?

Studying Spirituality

Todd Kashdan at George Mason University and John Nezlek at the College of William and Mary set out to discover more about spirituality and its importance for individuals. Does spirituality vary from day to day, or is it more solid and trait-like? Does it predict well-being? If spirituality fluctuates within a person and within a day, what impact does that have on well-being?

“When adopted as a worldview, theorists argue that spirituality offers a clear set of beliefs about secular and sacred aspects of life, a stable sense of self and group identity that in turn, provides a sense of belonging and meaning in life.” From the introductory discussion.

They studied these questions with college students filling in daily reports for 14 days. Eighty-seven participants provided 1239 valid daily entries. Every participant provided at least 9 entries. The daily reports included two spirituality items, four self-esteem items, two meaning-in-life items, and two sets of affect measures, positive and negative. The spirituality questions were “The spiritual part of my life was very important to me,” and “My personal relationship with a power greater than myself was important to me.”

The three hypotheses explored by the study are listed below, quoted from the study:

  1. Similar to other constructs that have traditionally been considered as traits or dispositions, we expected that spirituality would vary within persons, i.e., across time and measurement occasions (days in our case).
  2. Similar to relationships at the between-person level, we expected that within-person
    relationships between daily spirituality and well-being would be positive.
  3. Within-person relationships between spirituality and well-being would be stronger for people who were more dispositionally spiritual than for those who were less dispositionally spiritual.

How does Spirituality Relate to Religion?

In this study, spirituality is a construct that overlaps but is not equivalent to religiosity. Thus one can be spiritual without being religious. It is also, according to the study’s authors (quoting the Fetzer Institute), “possible to adopt the outward forms of religious worship and doctrine without having a strong relationship to the transcendent.”

Within-person (day to day) variability in spirituality

We know from observation that religious behaviors vary from day to day: on some days, certain groups attend religious services that they do not attend on other days. But what about spirituality, which is less easily observed?

It turns out that spirituality does indeed fluctuate, with individuals in this psychological study indicating that on some days they experienced higher or lower levels of spirituality. In fact, no one in the entire study gave a constant reading across the 14 days of data collection.

When spirituality fluctuated, so did other measures, such as self-esteem and meaning-in-life. Consistent with the research hypothesis, within-person relationships between spirituality and self-esteem were positive, as well as within-person relationships between spirituality and meaning. Furthermore, daily spirituality was positively related to positive affect but not significantly related to negative affect.

However, the real kicker seems to be that when the researchers considered the mediating effect of the various measurements, meaning-in-life fully mediated the relationship between daily spirituality and both daily self-esteem and positive affect. Daily positive affect, however, only accounted for 28% of the overall effect of daily spirituality on meaning-in-life. This suggests to me that meaning, rather than positive affect (happiness), may be central to other elements of well-being.

Lagged Effect Design

One creative aspect of the research design that I found interesting was a “lagged effect” analysis. Researchers wanted to see if higher sense of meaning on a particular day would be correlated with higher spirituality on the next day, or perhaps vice versa. It’s important to note that the researchers were only looking at correlations since they did not manipulate any variables in an attempt to prove causality. They found that while there was a lagged relationship from spirituality to meaning (higher spirituality on day one did predict higher meaning-in-life on day two), the opposite did not hold.

They did not find a lagged relationship between self-esteem and spirituality in either direction. The lagged relationship between spirituality and affect is more complex and is moderated by trait spirituality: For people with high trait spirituality, greater negative affect on a particular day was correlated with greater spirituality on the next day, while there was no significant lagged effect of negative affect for people low in trait spirituality. Lowered positive affect had the opposite lagged effect for people high in trait spirituality, who experienced small increases in spirituality, than for those low in trait spirituality, who experienced small decreases in spirituality.


This starts to hint at future implications for positive interventions though, of course, considerably more research is needed. Can we somehow help people experience more spirituality and thereby increase their experience of meaning? The implications are exciting. Perhaps more meaning could ward off depression, increase positive relationships, and allow people to exercise professional callings more often. Does increasing daily experiences of spirituality suffice? If not, can disciplines such as yoga and meditation help people increase trait spirituality?


Overall, it is profoundly exciting to see positive psychology research dive deeply into questions of individual strengths, such as courage (Robert Biswas-Diener), curiosity (Todd Kashdan), and now spirituality. While research is still at an early correlation stage, this present study does open up intriguing questions and avenues for investigation.

Every now and then, I will see a prospective PhD student post a question to an online forum, asking for positive psychology research topics. This is an area that is crying out for more examination.


Kashdan, T.B., & Nezlek, J.B. (in press). Whether, when, and how is spirituality related to well-being? Moving beyond single occasion questionnaires to understanding daily process. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

McCarthy, J. (2012). On Spirituality, Well-being, and Maui Moments. Another discussion of the article by Kashdan and Nezlek.

A religious life – Moral authority courtesy of Steve Minor
Interconnectedness – A Restful Noise courtesy of csm242000
Seated Yoga Meditation courtesy of My Yoga Online
Feeling Interconnected courtesy of Giovanni Orlando

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Oz 16 July 2012 - 2:23 pm

lisa – were there any effect sizes – correlations are well and good but how important are they

the comment – For people with high trait spirituality, greater negative affect on a particular day was correlated with greater spirituality on the next day, while there was no significant lagged effect of negative affect for people low in trait spirituality – supports my hunch on meaning – turn to good when things arent going so well – no rocket science here.

im also interested in cohorts – was it psych students, which culture. for example australians generally show up as happy as do people from northern europe – but we are secular countries.

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 16 July 2012 - 2:31 pm

All great questions Oz and, as I’m in the throes of planning the CPPA conference which starts in 4 days, I’m sorry to say I won’t have the time to go back to Todd’s research to answer. Kathryn has also read the research – she may have time to answer. You can also ask Todd directly – I know you and he are both active on Friends of PP. Or else I’m sure he will link to it from his website once it has been published: http://toddkashdan.com/articles.php
All the best,

Oz 16 July 2012 - 2:43 pm

lisa – enjoy the conference – as an aside it seems religion where it is important really is the opiate of the masses – but i wonder what the opiate is in secular countries

Todd Kashdan 17 July 2012 - 9:44 am

Lisa, really nice description of a very complex set of methods, analyses, and results. There are a lot of ways to look at these findings and I think its easy to fall into the monday morning quarterback trap that these findings are obvious. The research by Joseph Forgas, Barb Fredrickson, Alice Isen, and Laura King among others would suggest that on days when we experience high levels of positive emotions we should experience greater spirituality the next day (a broadening effect, a mood as information effect, an intuitive judgment of meaning). However, we found the opposite, that on days comprised of high negative emotions or days devoid of positive emotions, there was an increased commitment to spirituality the next day. This fits with cybernetic theories such as Charles Carver. The cynical coach potato can look at these findings and state that they are obvious when in fact there are multiple models that all lead to different predictions.

We found a Trait x State interaction for spirituality such that spiritual people appear to need their “spiritual fix” in daily life to maintain any psychological benefits. It is insufficient to just claim a spiritual life, you have to commit daily just like dieting or exercise or managing close relationships. This suggests that prior work that only focuses on psychological strengths as traits is missing a big part of the picture. Similarly, studies that only focus on laboratory manipulations miss the fluctuations in daily life and importance of personality traits in understanding when and how different types of well-being arise.

As for effect sizes, everyone who reads science articles should ask about these. Of course, I find it humorous when people ask for effect sizes and are very critical of work that challenges their beliefs yet don’t do the same for work that matches their beliefs. The same criteria should be required for all work.

Also, what is a satisfactory effect size? What makes a reader happy? A small effect between people can be a larger effect within-people as we refer to how two psychological mechanisms covary from one day to the next, cycling across a person’s life. Small effects accumulate, changing how a person lives. Add 10 minutes of strenuous exercise per day to a person life (who did little more than walking beforehand), and those small changes of exercise on mood and behavior will likely be visible and meaningful. Some people are laser focused on broken twigs, other people can oscillate between different vantage points of forests and trees.

I also think critics often fail to understand science. It is incremental. This study adds a tiny bit to prior work that was limited to cross-sectional designs or the use of arbitrary 3-month or 6-month follow-ups. If you want to understand spirituality, look to moments, days, weeks, months, and years. And be mindful of time periods under study. No study is perfect. Its amateurish to spend endless effort repeatedly shredding individual studies without looking at the larger forest of theories and empirical studies that operate together.

Happy to respond to curious, inquiring minds.
{… edited …}

thanks for sharing my work Lisa.
I hope people with varying views on spirituality and religion chime in. I’m interested to hear how I was off, what would have been better, and where to go next. I’ll post the PDF on the listserv and my website when I get the final version next month.


Todd Kashdan 17 July 2012 - 2:16 pm

I will post the link to the PDF when it arrives.

{… Edited …}

Jeremy McCarthy 17 July 2012 - 4:26 pm

Todd, I think you’ve added a nice layer to a complex subject with this research. My thought was that the 24 hour window for the lagged analyses may be too long–that positive emotional experiences may lead to boosts in spirituality (perhaps driven in large part by mood as information) but then fades quickly. But I like the way you think of life as a collection of moments and I can imagine the cumulative ripple effects of an infinite number of moments all reverberating off of each other. There is an interesting dance that happens between emotion and spirituality and I think you show some nuance to it that had previously been hidden.

Todd Kashdan 17 July 2012 - 6:39 pm

Jer, I think you are dead on. I think we missed a ton of cyclical effects throughout the day. I spend a lot of time late at night thinking about how to capture change in a meaningful way. The data I am writing up right now is much more dynamic as we capture multiple moments over the course of a single day and then across days and then across weeks in adults from the community. So far we found some really cool findings that I can share offline when we meet in NYC.

Addressing change from one day to the next (this means controlling for the outcome on day-1) is a very conservative analysis and I was surprised we found a wide range of effects and clear evidence for a single direction (as meaning in life, self-esteem, and affect failed to predict the next day’s spiritual commitment). This tells me how robust spiritual commitment tends to be as a robust mindset.

I am working on another dataset to compare spirituality and religiosity. The battle is a bit arbitrary because of the conceptual overlap but its what people think about, care about, fight about, and if is part of their life is is often the nexus. So why not.


Jeremy McCarthy 17 July 2012 - 8:57 pm

I’m just glad there are people like you who stay up at night thinking about this kind of stuff. I also think it’s the right move to tackle spirituality vs. religiosity. There is a hole in our scientific language when we try to talk about this stuff. I agree there is conceptual overlap, but not so much that they should be lumped together as often as they are.

Scott 18 July 2012 - 9:54 am

Lisa, kudos to you for writing such a compelling, condensed article and still creating a great flow and easy understanding. This is especially amazing with the CPPA Conference looming. Nicely done.

This is exciting stuff. First of all, your research in my experience is dead on (I was an ordained Capuchin Franciscan Friar for 19 years). The connection of spirituality to meaning was something I always assumed, but you are starting the research. Excellent. There might be some interesting research on the connection to resilience also. I found spiritual people able to struggle longer in the midst of challenges. Wasn’t sure if there was a connection.
However, your final comment to Jeremy about comparing spirituality to religiosity is really important. There is an important distinction between form and function here and too often religiosity goes through the actions without the deeper context of spirituality. Conversely I often wondered what how the communal aspect of religion assisted the well-being of those in attendance even aside from the religious rituals. I look forward to reading your research. Thanks.

Elaine O'Brien 18 July 2012 - 12:10 pm

Kudos Lisa! Love the topic and thanks for a compelling article. Sorry to learn about loss of the the Congregation of Notre Dame (CND) sister’s residence in your community. I appreciate learning about their, work in education in health care, your business meeting and the Traditional Knowledge and Healing Practices at Métis Elders’ Gatherings!

Great for you to showcase/explain Todd Kashdan and John Nezlek’s outcomes and discoveries about spirituality and its importance for individuals! I also appreciate Scott’s intimate point of view. Jeremy’s question about the nomenclature and differences between religiousity and spirituality is on my mind.

I’m curious about what methods might prime spirituality; In my practice, I’m aiming to activate positive spiritual, mental health, physical and positive emotional change via group dance exercise and group PEP:Positive Exercise Practices. Today, I had the chance to lead 22 attractive and active women of a certain age, to dance/exercise in a beautiful setting: outdoors in Spring Lake, N.J. U.S., overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

While we were stretching, lifting, laughing and dancing en masse, overlooking the vista, the women seemed transformed: moving in communitas to eclectic music and rhythms. Would this seem like a viable method toward priming spirituality?

Cheers to you, Lisa, and CPP; can’t wait to see you in Toronto.


Christine Duvivier 18 July 2012 - 9:24 pm

Hey Lisa, Thank you so much for bringing this research to my attention. For me, it’s the most interesting new research in PP that I’ve seen.

Todd, thanks for your wonderful research! I like good data and I like even more a prima facie,”yes, I see this in the real world” and your data supports my personal experience of spirituality.

This article and your research reminded me of the Chinese Monk who mentored Steve Jobs and told him not to become a Monk (as he was thinking he would like to do) but to stay in his then-startup business because he’d get more from that spiritually:)

I love that you’re creating a great new conversation!


Judy Krings 19 July 2012 - 8:12 am

Terrific article and discussion, Lisa and all.

Having just gotten back from 4 days in the Outer Banks of NC with my best, life-long friend, Cheryl, mindfulness and meaning played a huge part in this joyful experience. I wanted us to go there for decades. We chatted, cajoled, “fussed over” as she would say, heady topics, history, and sucked all the beauty.

I had read this article twice and all the comments, too. They help me put into perspective all the conversations Cheryl and I had. Our sharing, positive reminiscing, and musing about the universe and the meaning of our experiences together. Was this article ever timely.

Today I go to sit with my 93 year old Mom and will ask her about her spirituality. She is very much an optimist and resilient as all get out. Not religious, but sees life as “lucky” no matter what she has had to deal with like the doctor giving her a me she did not need that caused her 100% deafness and vertigo. I will tape it to remember her wisdom. Thanks for the ideas!

Lisa, Todd, Jeremy, and all, thanks for your insights. Todd, keep up your shake, rattle and roll which to me keeps opening the doors for new applications for me and fellow practitioners. I love finally seeing spirituality getting taken seriously. Amen!

Todd Kashdan 19 July 2012 - 3:35 pm

Scott, thanks for putting your personal juice out there. I know that many people are afraid to mix these topics- spirituality and science. From my clinical work, interviews for books, and personal conversations, I also believe that spirituality is likely to provide a secure base that can provide resilience in the same vein that people can develop secure attachments with close relationship partners. The research to date is sketchy because its basically researchers handing a bunch of people a packet of questionnaires and then seeing how a score on a few questions relate to a score from another set of questions. The literature is plagued with this single occasion questionnaire approach because its easy to do, cheap, and the field accepts it. When we step back and think like people instead of scientists, we realize the absurdity of using such crude approaches to capture the complexity of psychological phenomena such as resilience and spirituality. You can only study these issues by addressing people in context over time. Resilience is not a one-shot thing you can measure, its a process. Same with spirituality. We didn’t nail it here, our measurement of spirituality leaves a lot to be desired but it does hopefully stop people from thinking they understand humanity by giving a single long questionnaire and crunching the numbers. Its going to be decades before we really get at religion and spirituality and even then, people will argue against whatever is found based on what they think the data should look like. Atheists want the data to turn out one way and highly religious people want the data to turn out another way. The wise ones will let the data talk (assuming that the methods pass muster).

Elaine, Judy, and Christine, thanks for the kind words. Christine, the ratio of rewards to rejection is abysmal in the science business so thanks for making me smile.


Judy Krings 19 July 2012 - 3:45 pm

Thanks, Todd.

Science nor anything else in life that is challenging seems like a slam dunk. I am so proud of all you researchers/scientists who welcome the dunk tank and say you swallowed some great water or you peculated an idea while you were sitting on the bottom. Know how much you are appreciated.

Jeremy McCarthy 19 July 2012 - 5:17 pm

Elaine, you might enjoy my article relating this research to the experience of being surrounded by beauty on the island of Maui: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201207/on-spirituality-wellbeing-and-maui-moments.html. I’m working on another article (inspired by Jules Evans’ new book “Philosophy for Life” that talks about the experience of “Samadhi” stimulated by looking out at a starry night sky, or the ocean, (or views of the Earth from space as reported by astronauts.)

p.s. always love your reminders about the power of communitas!

Scott 19 July 2012 - 8:08 pm

Lisa, Todd and all,
The interweaving of the personal with the scientific in the comments posted about this article is just a small indication of the complexity of spirituality. Todd the fact that you have dared (and I say that tounge in cheek) to try to understand and articulate the scientific dimension of spirituality is a very important step to both demythologize spirituality and understand it. Having written that, there is also the untouchable part of spirituality that will never be demythologized because it is the only way we can grasp or “touch” the mystical element. The more fully we understand spirituality and seperate it from religiosity the more people will derive the positive aspects of spirituality without some of the negative belief systems.
This is really exciting work and I look forward to following more of the research. Thanks to all of you for bringing this forward.

Todd Kashdan 19 July 2012 - 8:47 pm

Scott, exactly why my talk next week in Toronto is titled, “The Science of Spirituality: Essential and Impossible”. Not too long ago I had a very dogmatic view of spirituality as a term that had no utility in discussing human behavior. After all, what does it add beyond awe, meaning, love, and perspective taking. I was convinced to be more flexible after a respectful yet heated argument with Russ Harris. I am convinced that we will never fully understand it just as we will never fully understand love, hate, resilience, mindfulness, or nearly any psychological phenomena. But to avoid it is to avoid some of the ultimate concerns of humanity. You don’t have to agree with everything that people believe in but if you want to study humanity, you should go where the action lies. People will argue incessantly about the mere mention of spirituality. People will kill each other because of incompatible spiritual belief systems. People will bifurcate the world into camps of people they are willing and unwilling to let into their inner circle based on their spiritual beliefs. People are able to self-soothe and feel a sense of equanimity through their spiritual beliefs and behaviors. The list goes on. This is why it amazes me at how little progress scientists have made and perhaps even more amazing, how few people are taking the time to ask and test questions concerning spirituality.

I used to be unwilling to go there. Jon Haidt talks about a similar journey in his book. Now I train the young guns to purposely search for territory where discomfort reigns, as that is often where the best, unanswered questions lie.

“…” Edited.

Amanda Horne 22 July 2012 - 7:56 am

Hi Lisa and everyone who commented. The article and discussions are thought provoking. Todd, this resonates “When we step back and think like people instead of scientists, we realize the absurdity of using such crude approaches to capture the complexity of psychological phenomena such as resilience and spirituality. You can only study these issues by addressing people in context over time. Resilience is not a one-shot thing you can measure, its a process. Same with spirituality.”

Todd Kashdan 7 August 2012 - 12:14 pm

Here is the PDF for all to read. Note that contrary to {edited: Oz}’s critique, the % of whites in our sample (55%) is much lower than found in the US Census (75%) and most psychology studies. This is because GMU is one of the 5 most diverse schools in the country. Enjoy! Spirited conversation welcome. Read and evaluate the theory, questions, data first hand and then read the limitations in the discussion section.




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