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?
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.”
“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.
The three hypotheses explored by the study are listed below, quoted from the study:
- 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).
- Similar to relationships at the between-person level, we expected that within-person
relationships between daily spirituality and well-being would be positive.
- 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 spiritualityWe 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.Applications?
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?Conclusions
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