Spiritual Engagement and Meaning

People follow spiritual paths and join religious organizations for a variety of reasons, including faith, prayer, social support, community service, cultural tradition, friendship, commitment to the community and more. How often do you hear someone say that they committed to a religion or spiritual practice primarily to become happier? Perhaps not often. However, interestingly enough, studies demonstrate a close link between religious and spiritual engagement (practice) and happiness.

Scientists who study this phenomenon hypothesize several possible reasons for a link between religiosity, spirituality, and happiness. Religious organizations provide strong social support from like-minded people, providing various opportunities for socializing, community service and making friends with individuals from a common network.

Spirituality and prayer also provide people with an opportunity to engage in a meditative act. Meditation has been shown to have a strong link with well-being because it calms the body, reduces stress and anxiety, and also supports positive thinking. The cultivation of “sacred moments” in daily life, whether through journal-writing or daily spiritual exercises, has been associated with reduced levels of stress and an increase in psychological well-being. Finally, both spirituality and organized religion can help provide people with perspective, hope, and a deeper sense of meaning. By believing in something greater than themselves, it may help them stay positive in times of sadness, and foster resilience in its role as a coping strategy.

Generally, religiosity can be defined as one’s relationship with an established faith tradition or doctrine about a sacred other or supernatural power, while spirituality can often be defined as “the intrinsic human capacity for self-transcendence, in which the self is embedded in something greater than the self, including the sacred” and which motivates “the search for connectedness, meaning, purpose, and contribution.”1 However, these abstract ideas are measured in many different ways, from frequency of church attendance to asking people “how religious are you?” As for mental well-being and happiness, studies look at indicators of mental well-being, both negative (i.e. depression) and positive (i.e. self-reported happiness, self esteem, positive relationships with others). A recent survey of the studies (meta-analysis) examines the different definitions and measurements of religiosity/spirituality as well as mental effects.

A 2012 review of more than 326 peer-reviewed studies of mainly adult populations found that out of those 326 studies, 256 (79%) found only significant positive associations between religiosity/spirituality and well-being. The author postulated that the positive influence of religion or spirituality on well-being can be explained through a few key mechanisms, such as religion’s role as a coping strategy and as a support system for prosocial behaviors. In addition, religious beliefs can potentially alter the way individuals cognitively react to stressors, and often, the regulations of most faiths decrease the likelihood of individuals experiencing particularly stressful life events (such as divorce or incarceration) (2).

A 2010 study of adults found that independent of religious service attendance and congregation-based friendship, other subjective components of religion do not influence life satisfaction significantly. The authors thus note that the social networks that individuals build in their religious congregations are responsible for mediating most of the effects of service attendance on life satisfaction (3).

One important point about the studies is that, even though most researchers say they are looking at the “effect” of religion on mental well-being, the vast majority only show that religious and spiritual people report higher levels of happiness and mental well-being. This means that good mental well-being might predispose people to religious involvement or vice versa. To look at whether religiosity/spirituality causes better mental well-being, scientists must study people over a long period of time.

1. Benson, P. L., Roehlkepartain, E. C. & Rude, S. P. (2003). Spiritual development in childhood and adolescence: Toward a field of enquiry. Applied Developmental Science 7(205-6).

2. Koenig, H. G. (2012). Religion, spirituality, and health: the research and clinical implications. International Scholarly Research Network – Psychiatry 278730: 1-33..

3. Lim, C., and Putnam, R. D. (2010). Religion, social networks, and life satisfaction. American Sociological Review 75 (6): 914 – 933.

Learn More about Religiosity/Spirituality and Meaning in Life:

Comprehensive Reviews of Key Studies

Annotated Bibliography

The Philosophy of Finding Meaning in Life

How were key studies on spiritual engagement, meaning, and psychological well-being selected?

Key studies concerning religious/spiritual engagement and meaning in life were selected according to methodological rigor, type of investigation, and approach taken in understanding the relationship between R/S engagement, meaning in life, and psychological well-being. The work of Bonelli, et al (2012), was identified as a key study due to its methodological rigor in reviewing quantitative research that focuses on the association between religion and depression, as well as the therapeutic utilization of R/S resources for depressed patients. Ellison’s 1991 study was identified as a key study because it was one of the first studies to report on the relationship between religious/spiritual beliefs, life satisfaction, and personal happiness. In his seminal investigation, Ellison also uniquely examined four different aspects of religious involvement in assessing religiosity/spirituality. Galen and Klout’s 2011 study was identified as a key study due to its focus on the curvilinear (rather than linear) relationship between religiosity and well-being (with non-religious participants showing significantly greater levels of well-being than weakly-religious participants). Goldstein’s study (2007) was identified as a key study due to its empirical clinical evidence (as well as qualitative interviews) that revealed the psychological importance of cultivating sacred moments in daily life.

Additionally, Halama and Dedova’s 2007 study was identified as a key study due to its unique emphasis on examining whether meaning in life and hope are associated with positive mental health among adolescents. The work of Ivtzan, et al (2013), was selected as a key study because it uniquely distinguishes between the roles of religious involvement and spirituality in investigating how each influences psychological well-being, in terms of self-actualization and life meaningfulness. Lim and Putnam’s 2010 study was identified as a key study due to its focus on social networks as the key mediator of the oft-reported positive relationship between religious service attendance and life satisfaction. Koenig’s 2012 review article was also identified as a key study because of the breadth of research findings that are evaluated (from 1872 to 2012), as well as the focus that Koenig places on integrating his findings with actions by health professionals. Krause’s 2006 study was identified as a key study due to its longitudinal nature, as well as its focus on investigating the role of religious doubt (rather than religious belief) in contributing to decreased psychological well-being. Finally, the work of Ryan and Francis (2012) was selected as a key study due to its unique investigation of the association between locus of control, religious functioning, and psychological health. The work of Ryan and Francis (2012) was seminal in postulating that an internal locus of control mediates the relationship between awareness of God and psychological health.