We all know the basic recipe for health: eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, limit our alcohol intake, and avoid tobacco and other drugs. Those things are important for maintaining physical and emotional health. But what about that part of yourself that is less tangible but needs just as much tender loving care?
Regardless of religious affiliation, most of us recognize that we have a deeper part of ourselves that needs our care and attention. Some may refer to it as “spirit,” “soul,” “higher self,” “inner child,” or countless other names. It doesn’t matter what you call it; what matters is that you acknowledge and nurture it.
What Is Spirituality?
Many people confuse spirituality and religion, but the two are not synonymous. Spirituality refers to an inner belief system that provides meaning, connection, and comfort. It may encompass a belief in immaterial reality such as God, a higher power, or some sort of universal connection with all that exists. Spirituality is an inner path that allows people to discover and develop their true essence and values.
Religion, on the other hand, typically refers to an organized system of shared beliefs, rituals, and practices. One need not subscribe to any form of organized religion to feel a deep sense of spirituality; however, many people do find a spiritual home within the context of organized religion.
Many people consider spirituality a way to connect with a sense of meaning and truth. Some people experience this in church, others in nature or through art, dance, music, or ritual. People with a spiritual foundation feel that their lives have meaning and value, and they develop deep, close relationships.
Benefits of Spirituality
Spirituality has been shown to offer many benefits, including improved mood and reduced anxiety, stress, and depression. Several studies have also reported a link between spirituality and happiness. Researchers from San Francisco State University found that money spent on experiences produced a greater sense of happiness than money spent on material objects.1 There may be a spiritual link to this phenomenon— experiences provide a sense of social connectedness and meaning that material objects simply cannot provide. We develop meaning through interaction and experiences, not things. While we may grow bored with a material object, we do not tend to grow bored with our happy memories.
Children intuitively understand this, as they thrive on strong interactions with family and friends. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that children who had a strong sense of spirituality were happier.2 (Spirituality was defined as feeling that their lives had value and strong relationships.) Religious practices, in contrast, had little effect on happiness and self-worth.
Cultivating a Sense of Spirituality
Spirituality is a personal journey; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Cultivating spirituality begins with fostering a sense of connection. The prevalence of technology and social media has provided a false sense of connection, and these things actually enable us to disconnect from our inner selves. Spirituality requires us to turn inward and examine what brings us joy and meaning. It’s a process of connecting with our deepest self.
Tools for Cultivating Spirituality
We think we’re so connected—social media, cell phones, e-mail, Skype—but we’re actually disconnected. These things take us out of ourselves. What takes you in to yourself? How do you connect with your spirit?
We each have an internal voice, but sometimes the world is so loud that we don’t hear it. To tune in to your deepest self, it’s important to carve out quiet time to breathe. Here are some suggestions for finding a way to connect with your deepest self:
Meditation. Research has shown that people who meditate have increased activity in the “feel good” area of the brain. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. There are several different types of meditation; find one that works for you and make it a daily practice.
Spend Time in Nature. The natural world is a soothing environment. Whether you take a walk in the woods or simply sit by a river or lake, spending time in nature is a proven way to alleviate stress and connect with your inner self. Smell the fresh air, listen to nature’s sound track, and feel the calm wash over you.
Join A Religious Organization. Some people find that the structure and the rituals of organized religion help them cultivate a deep sense of spirituality. The commitment to a weekly service can provide stability as well as community.
Keep A Journal. A daily practice of journaling provides an excellent outlet for emotions and also helps us develop an inner dialogue and uncover our true feelings, desires, and fears.
Practice Breathing. Most of us take breathing for granted. We take 15,000 to 20,000 breaths per day without giving it much thought. Unfortunately, we have become a society of shallow breathers, taking small breaths that reach only our chests instead of our diaphragms. Breathing deeply into the diaphragm triggers the relaxation response, allowing the heart rate to slow and the blood pressure to drop. Spend a few moments each day focused on your breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly and fully, and feel yourself slip into a calm, centered state.
Embrace Creativity. Creative expression is an outlet for our sorrow and joy. Paint, sing, sculpt, draw, write, or find some other avenue of expressing what is inside you. Delight in your unique self-expression.
Give. Volunteer your time, talent, or treasure or commit random acts of kindness. When we give to others, we feel a boost. Share a meal, a smile, a kind word, or any act of service and feel your spirits lift.
Pray. You don’t need to go to church to reap the benefits of prayer. There is no right or wrong way to pray. Simply get quiet and allow yourself to make a connection with something larger than yourself. Some people refer to prayer as “meditation with words.”
Sweat. Get out and move! Ride a bike, take a hike, or swim across a lake. Movement is an excellent way to find your center and allow energy to move through you.
Practice Gratitude. Keep a daily gratitude journal; each day list five things for which you are grateful. By counting our blessings, we become aware of how truly blessed we are.
Garden. Digging in the dirt is a surefire way to feel connected to the earth and yourself. Weeding a garden is a powerful metaphor for our lives—we pull weeds to allow for new growth.
Study. Seek solace in a spiritual text such as the Bible or any number of other inspirational tools for growth.
- Howell RT, Hill G. The mediators of experiential purchases: determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison. Journal of Positive Psychology. 2009;4(6): 511-22.
- Holder MD, Coleman B, Wallace JM. Spirituality, religiousness, and happiness in children aged 8-12 years. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2008;11:131-50.