You are here

by Ben Dean Ph.D.

The foundations of a person are not in matter but in spirit.. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

At the beginning of May 2005, Gallup asked Americans to rate how important religion is in their lives. Of those surveyed, 55% rated religion as very important and 28% rated religion as fairly important. Only 16% stated that religion was not important at all. (These statistics are from, a valuable resource.)

Peterson and Seligman (2004) observed that spirituality is universal: “Although the specific content of spiritual beliefs varies, all cultures have a concept of an ultimate, transcendent, sacred, and divine force” (p. 601). If a belief in the transcendent is so much a part of the human experience, isn’t it curious that research on spirituality and religion is so under-represented in the field?

One explanation may be that the concept of spirituality doesn’t fit neatly into our current research molds. (“Can you please rate on this 7 point scale how much the Spirit moved you today?”) Even mapping the conceptual distinctions between what we refer to as “religion” and what we refer to as “spirituality” can be difficult. In their chapter on Spirituality in the Handbook of Positive Psychology, Pargament and Mahoney (2002) make the distinction as follows:

We prefer to use the term religion in its classic sense as a broad individual and institutional domain that serves a variety of purposes, secular as well as sacred. Spirituality represents the key and unique function of religion. In this chapter, spirituality is defined as a search for the sacred.....People can take a virtually limitless number of pathways in their attempts to discover and conserve the sacred.....Pathways involve systems of belief that include those of traditional organized religions (e.g. Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim), newer spirituality movements (e.g. feminist, goddess, ecological, spiritualities) and more individualized worldviews.

In this article, you may notice that I make reference to more studies on religion than spirituality. This imbalance simply reflects the research.

Benefits of Spirituality

Though horrible atrocities have been committed in the name of religion throughout history, research suggests that religious and spiritual beliefs have tremendous positive benefits to individuals and societies.

Listed below are some of the benefits of religion reviewed in the Peterson and Seligman Handbook (2005). For references to specific studies, see p. 609 in the Handbook. Remember, this is the Reader’s Digest version.

  1. Among young people in particular, being religious is associated with reduced smoking, drug, and alcohol use. Young people who engage in religious practices (like going to church) are also more likely to have better grades and delay having sex.
  2. Being religious has positive benefits for relationships. People who actively participate in religious activities and who view religion as important are less likely to experience conflict in their marriage and more likely to perceive their spouses as supportive. Religious parents are also more likely to parent consistently and less likely to have highly conflictual relationships with their teenagers.
  3. Religious beliefs and practices are predictive of other virtues such as altruism, volunteerism, kindness, and forgiveness. Similarly, churches that actively promote displays of these values (especially volunteerism and philanthropy) are associated with community well-being.
  4. Finally, religious beliefs are broadly associated with the ability to cope with stressful life events. Prayer and the social support from a religious community play a strong role in positive coping.

Some research on religion and coping suggests that the benefits of religion have to do more with how you are religious-your religious style or orientation--than whether you are religious. I will briefly review two ways to think about religious style below.

Religious Orientation or Style and Coping

Gordon Allport, the famous personality theorist, made the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientation. Put simply, an extrinsically oriented person seeks out religion because it provides comfort and security, but he or she would also be motivated by guilt or external sources of pressure (family, social pressure, etc.). In contrast, an intrinsically orientated person is motivated more by faith and a search for meaning and purpose in life. Some evidence suggests that individuals with an intrinsic orientation are better able to cope with stressful life events since this orientation leads them to find meaning in what has happened.

Others researchers highlight how differences in one’s religious/spiritual problem solving style can affect our ability to cope with adversity. Four styles have been identified:

  1. A self-directing style – Individuals with this style are calling the shots. Though they may believe in a higher power, they rely on themselves to solve/handle any problems.
  2. A deferring style – Individuals with this style are more passive. They wait for God to handle the situation.
  3. A collaborative style – Individuals with this style see themselves as working with God to deal with the problem at hand.
  4. A surrendering style – Individuals make a conscious decision to relinquish those aspects of the situation that are truly beyond their control.

The collaborative style seems to be adaptive in a wide range of situations in that individuals tend to feel empowered (with God on their side) and motivated to do what they can to improve the situation. The self-directing style is also generally effective, largely because people tend to fare better when they perceive a situation as controllable. The noteworthy exception to this is when the situation is extreme and (by objective standards) largely uncontrollable. In extreme, uncontrollable situations like the death of a family member, the surrendering and deferring styles are often the most adaptive. When nothing can be done to prevent or undo the event, surrendering control provides an overwhelmed person with relief.

See Gall et al. (2005) for a nice review of how individual differences in religious orientations/problem-solving styles can affect coping.

Building Spirituality

Below are some suggestions for cultivating spirituality developed by Dr. Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia:

  • For five minutes a day, relax and think about the purpose of life, and where you fit in.
  • For five minutes a day, think about the things you can do to improve the world or your community.
  • Read a religious or spiritual book, or go to a religious service every day.
  • Explore different religions. You can do this by going to a library, looking on the Internet, or asking your friends about their religions.
  • Spend a few minutes a day in meditation or prayer.
  • Invest in a book of affirmations or optimistic quotes. Read a few every day.


Gall, T., Charbonneau, C., Clarke, N.H., Grant, K., Joseph, A., and Shouldice, L. (2005). Understanding the nature and role of spirituality in relation to coping and health. Canadian Psychology 46 (2), 88-104.

Pargament, K.I. & Mahoney, A. 2002. “Spirituality: The Discovery and Conservation of the Sacred.” C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez Eds., Handbook of Positive Psychology pp. 646-659. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association/New York: Oxford University Press.