It is an undeniable symptom of the human condition that we search for meaning and purpose in our lives. We share the obvious tasks of survival, knowing that we require food, water and shelter. But at some base level we cannot deny that there is a difference between surviving and living. A person’s health and wellbeing is more than just ‘lacking illness’, or coping with their environment. Our health should be viewed as a tool for living a meaningful life, rather than the objective of life itself.
A person’s wellbeing can be divided into several categories: physical, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual. We can satisfy our physical needs with our survival and social instincts. We can experience a range of emotions through personal experiences and social inclusion. We can entertain intellectual thought, exercising our mental capacity. But while these are all important to living a meaningful life, we still share a desire to develop a sense of belonging and understanding.
As humans, we hold some construct of a personal identity. And in this understanding of ‘who we are’, follows the realisation that there is ‘something beyond me’. This could illicit feelings of anxiety, fear of the future, or inability to find a sense of meaning or hope. Or perhaps there could be fear surrounding what lies beyond our human lives.
Spiritual wellbeing is, put simply, equipping oneself with tools to nurture our ‘self’ so that we can find clarity in our purpose in life. ‘Self’ meaning, our general sense of hope, meaning and understanding. Our human nature asks the questions, and our spirituality is represented in the way in which we answer them. Similarly, spiritual wellbeing has a high degree of involvement with how we cope with intense emotions and tough situations. It is often in upsetting or belief-challenging moments that we come to address life’s big questions in ways that are helpful to us finding this sense of belonging and understanding. It is in these confronting times that we reveal these personal values and core beliefs.
A healthy sense of spirituality should aim to provide independence and trust in oneself, alongside a connectedness with others. Spirituality is often explored through people’s experiences with art, music, nature, philosophy, psychology and religion. As each of these can provide avenues to self expression, they provide a sense of connectedness to a higher power, or allow us access to something outside of ourselves. Spirituality enhances the human experience as it supports all other dimensions of wellbeing. There are a variety of ‘spiritual’ activities that people view as being spiritual, such as yoga, meditation, creating art, learning about oneself through philosophy and psychology, enjoying nature, and being involved in spiritual communities. While many people take part in these activities to nurture their spiritual selves, they can similarly benefit their physical, emotional, social and intellectual health.
Two terms that are often used together are ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’. While there is an undeniable relationship between these terms, they are more of an every-square-is-a-rectangle-but-not-every- rectangle-is-a-square. Meaning, being religious requires some element of spirituality, but that you do not have to subscribe to a religion in order to nurture yourself spiritually. One key construct of spirituality is its loyalty to personal development of beliefs and values. Organised religions are more community based, sharing a set of sacred texts, practices, beliefs and rituals. Religions are more concerned with deities, isms, lifestyles, cultural ideas, sacred texts and historical figures, whereas a person’s spirituality is one’s deepened, intentional understanding of ‘self’.
Spirituality is so integral to overall health and wellbeing as it supports us to understand how to take care of ourselves. Without a sense of understanding and meaning it can provide, it becomes difficult to know how to nurture ourselves. Many people frame their spirituality as being the relationship between body, mind and soul. The coordination of these elements of self-working together seamlessly create an incredibly powerful breeding ground for a sense of identity.
As stated previously, health and wellbeing should be tools for our lives, rather than the objectives of life themselves. The sense of meaning that is found through spirituality is intended to help us achieve goals and find meaningful relationships. Alongside that, spiritual health can help to build resilience to suffering. So when challenges arise, the person’s sense of identity and belonging can support them to make sense and cope with these situations. Just like a person’s immune system and how that supports a person’s physical health, a strong spiritual immune system can be highly effective in guiding somebody through suffering and belief-challenging times.
The links seen between spirituality and mental health are also apparent, as they both affect a person’s coping style and beliefs about the environment. A person’s spiritual beliefs and mental health will have some influence as to how they interpret the world around them. A person’s ‘locus of control’, or proposed causes or attributions for events, can be viewed as a mental health or spiritual concern.
Dr. Deborah Cornah writes in a report titled The Impact of Spirituality on Mental Health that, “Perceiving negative events as externally caused and positive events as internally caused is widely regarded as an ‘optimistic’ attribution style and is generally associated with better mental health...” Just in the way that religion or spirituality can help to attribute a person’s beliefs as to why things in their life happen. For example, a person’s spiritual views could provide them with an ‘internal locus of control’, where they recognise they have power and influence over their beliefs and sense of self.
Health and wellbeing is about resilience and development. Spirituality, although a more abstract dimension of wellbeing, represents our underlying drive for living. The concept of spirituality can be difficult to approach, as it such an independent, personalised journey that it is common to feel lonely in the process. However, there can be comfort found in knowing that spirituality is a pathway to connectedness, and is a teacher of resilience.