Science is Sheepish: Spirituality Makes Us Healthier, Happier People

All along, the majority position of Psychiatry has been that Psychiatry has nothing to do with religion and spirituality. Religious beliefs and practices have long been thought to have a pathological basis, and psychiatrists over a century have understood them in this light. Religion was considered as a symptom of mental illness. Jean Charcot and Sigmund Freud linked religion with neurosis. DSM3 portrayed religion negatively by suggesting that religious and spiritual experiences are examples of psychopathology. But recent research reports strongly suggest that to many patients, religion and spirituality are resources that help them to cope with the stresses in life, including those of their illness. Many psychiatrists now believe that religion and spirituality are important in the life of their patients.

The above is the introduction to a study published in 2008 on the subject of Spirituality and Mental Health. The semi-apologetic nature of this lead in to a rigorous scientific study underscores the irony of scientists encountering the spirit and religion as therapeutic and beneficial to their patients.

Here is the thing: science doesn’t like to acknowledge the existence of a higher power. Science likes to acknowledge nice, hard, provable facts. Which is why it may be an irksome thing for scientists to acknowledge the absolute fact that spirituality and religion can have a positive impact on health, both physical and mental.

And so, when forced to acknowledge the benefits of belief, they, the scientists, must remain detached and apologetic, explaining that while religion is a crock, if it helps their patients, it’s no skin off their teeth. But for the rest of us, those of us who are regular people, we are quite happy to acknowledge that striving to be spiritual people makes us better. We don’t care who says we’re being silly or imagining things. We believe what we believe.

And it makes us well. Makes us better people.

Yes. Everyone knows, for instance, that 12 step programs help people get sober. One of the reasons these programs work is that acknowledging a Higher Power is at the core of all of these programs, beginning with the mother of them all: Alcoholics Anonymous. That is what really sets apart 12-step programs from other types of substance abuse treatments and makes them work.

And this can be proven. In a study of teens aged 14-18, for instance, increased spirituality concurrent with receiving treatment for substance abuse was found to improve the likelihood that the participants would achieve abstinence, increase positive social behaviors, and lessen narcissistic behavior. One-third of the teens in this particular study entered this program for substance abuse as self-declared agnostics or atheists. Two-thirds of them were subsequently discharged claiming a spiritual identity.

What about mental health, quality of life, happiness? There too, it can be proven that having a spiritual side makes everything better. Scientists studied 320 children and found that strong spiritual beliefs were a strong predictor of greater happiness. In fact, the researchers found that it was possible to attribute up to 27% of the difference in happiness levels to spirituality.

But here’s a study that will really make your head spin: scientists found that people with a family history of deep spiritual ties were at a lower risk for depression. The reason? They had a relatively thicker cortex, the region of the brain found to be thinner in those with depression. In other words, if your mom believes in God (and maybe your grandmother before her), you’re less likely to become depressed. A family history of spirituality actually changes the physical contours of the brain! Mind-blowing (well, let’s hope not!).

By Patric Hagmann et.al. [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what you believe in. It’s all good from the standpoint of your mental health. Dan Cohen, an assistant teaching professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri says that’s because it’s more about spirituality acting as a personality trait. In the study he authored, no matter what faith the participants: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, the more spiritual they were, the better their mental health. The more spiritual participants had lower levels of neuroticism and tended to be more outgoing.

“Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions,” said Cohen. “Spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress.

Cohen thinks that being a spiritual person aids mental health by reducing self-centeredness and by helping people see they are a part of a much larger whole. Forgiveness is also part of the dynamic, as it is a central theme for all the major religions. Being able to forgive means being able to let go of blame and recrimination after an accident or during serious illness.

With all of this evidence that having a spiritual life is healthy, there’s a tendency to sneer at the religious, to see them as immature or even a bit weird. Those who embrace spirituality, however, couldn’t care less what others think. Hunger Games actress Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, spoke about her spiritual life in a 2012 interview with Marie Claire, “In the South it’s very normal. It would be weird for me to go to sleep without praying,” said Lawrence.

Meanwhile, Jim Gaffigan, of Comedy Central, expressed the belief that, “When we were kids it didn’t matter if someone was religious, it just mattered if they were annoying.

Could it be Gaffigan longs to return to that time when no one cared what you believed as long as you didn’t foist it on others? It’s not difficult to empathize. No one likes to have a belief foisted on them.

Oprah Winfrey said it well in a talk she gave at Stanford University on spiritual practice, “I’m not telling you what to believe or who to believe, or what to call it,” said Winfrey. “But there is no full life, no fulfilled or meaningful, sustainably joyful life without a connection to the spirit.”

Rabbi Avi Davidowitz is Camp Rabbi at TheZone, Oorah’s summer camp facility. Oorah, of course, is a Kars4Kids affiliate charity, with the latter funding many of Oorah’s programs. At TheZone, Rabbi  D., as he is known to the campers, sees daily evidence of the power of spirituality and the interplay between religious development and personal growth.

Spirituality: Elisheva E.

One day, Rabbi D. was approached by a girl at the beginning of his lesson. She asked if she could tell her personal story to the assembled campers and Rabbi D., of course, gave his consent. “We were spellbound as Elisheva E. spoke about her reading disability and how she pined to pray the shmoneh esrei prayer, also known as the Silent Benediction just once in her life. This young girl said it took her 45 minutes to say shmoneh esrei. She wanted to stop when almost all the other campers had already gone on to their activities, but her camper partner, Alana L. who also struggles with reading from the prayer book, stood there next to her as if she too were still praying, and with this friendship and encouragement, Elisheva kept going until she finished.”

The two of them stayed at it until they both were able to read through the entire prayer.  Rabbi D. remarked that, “They spoke to us about never giving up: if we keep trying, Hashem (God) will help us out.”

This aptly illustrates the power of belief and spirituality: the idea that a difficulty can be conquered if you believe in God and if you try hard enough. It also shows how belief in God led to empathy between two individuals, both struggling with difficulties, one in the past, one in the present.

Spirituality: The Donation

Another striking Oorah story that shows how belief helps children strive to be better comes from Rabbi Avraham Krawiec, who served as Director of TheZone for many years.  “A girl just back from a camp outing walked over to me, telling me that she had to speak with me. She became emotional and said, ‘I just won some money in a raffle and I want to give back to Oorah knowing how much you do for my family.'”

Rabbi Krawiec was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to take her money, at the same time, he didn’t want to take away her right to a good deed, either, and that is what made him accept her modest donation of $15

As Rabbi Krawiec put it, “It was only $15 but it was the best $15 donation I ever received.”

Here a child has learned the value of charity, a central belief of Judaism. Her spiritual development has led her to the concept of paying it forward and helping others. As a result, the girl is growing up to be a kind person—someone who will surely be an asset to any community lucky enough to include her as a future adult!

Spirituality: Delayed Gratification

Belief in the tenets of religion can also teach us about self-control and delaying gratification for a higher purpose. Aryeh, a TeenZone division head at TheZone, kept in touch with one camper calling him just after the Rosh Hashana holiday to see how he was doing. As it turns out, the boy was not doing well at all.

He’d wanted to observe the holiday with orthodox rigor, but could not stop himself from using his mobile phone, a no-no for the orthodox. The camper begged Aryeh to help him come up with a plan so he wouldn’t repeat the error on the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday, when phones are similarly off-limits for the very religious.

The boy intuited that his phone was coming between him and his relationship to the Divine. The phone was not in the spirit of the Ten Days of Repentance when we look back over the year past, to see where and when we failed to stop ourselves from doing things we wanted to do in the moment, instead of pushing to come closer to God. After discussing with Aryeh various ways he might keep himself from using the phone on the holiday, he got a brainstorm idea: he’d mail his phone to Aryeh!

Well, this plan certainly worked. Aryeh’s phone rang right after the holiday, and the boy’s voice was filled with joy. He’d done it. Observed Yom Kippur from start to finish, as it was meant to be observed. He’d felt nothing but holiness all that day.

Is it any wonder that the following summer, on the very last day of camp at TheZone, as the buses were already beginning to leave, that the boy went over to Aryeh and asked him to remind him to mail his phone to him for safe-keeping over the Rosh Hashana holiday?

Here was a boy who had learned that contrary to everything he’d always thought, it is quite possible to delay gratification, to patiently endure whatever trials and tribulations come our way, and come out all the stronger for it! Here was a boy who had learned that being a believing Jew on Rosh Hashanah meant putting away the phone and looking into his own heart instead of a screen.

The scientists may not like it, but there it is: being in touch with our spiritual side makes us better, healthier people, kids or adults.

And that’s a fact.

It makes us strive to achieve the seemingly unachievable and well, it makes us happier, too

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!
Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Smarter Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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