Home' Nova National : NOVA NATIONAL DECEMBER Contents Spiritual seekers tend to have
better physical and mental
health, so why is the sacred still
largely excluded from modern
medicine? Many physicians consider
spirituality out of their field of interest
and expertise. Some may be openly
sceptical or dismissive, while others will
be respectful. Yet most are disinclined
© NOVA DECEMBER 2011
to recommend or discuss their patient's
spiritual or religious practices. Natural
medicine has always been inclusive of
spirituality, yet many practitioners will
consider the sacred spaces of their
client's lives to be part of non evidence-
It may come as a surprise to find
that there is a large and growing body
of literature in the scientific and psych-
ological journals that supports the intuitive
wisdom, which tells us that having faith
in something greater than oneself will
improve our wellbeing.
Researchers in various disciplines
have suggested possible reasons for the
link between faith and health. Since the
mid 1990s, increasingly sophisticated
instruments have been developed to
measure the effect of spirituality on health.
Yet virtually all the existing reliable and
valid questionnaires simplify the sacred
into external religiosity. Perhaps because
it is difficult to measure, the more
subjective experiences of transcendence
have received fleeting attention. Instead,
the questions reflect the dominant
religious persuasion of the researchers, in
this case a Judaeo-Christian perspective.
Just as academia has had to evolve to
reflect the diversity of gender, sexual
orientation and multi culturalism, there
is currently a need for more inclusive
measures of spirituality.
For the purposes of discussion then,
it is necessary to accept that most people
who describe themselves as religious are
also spiritual, and that those who consider
themselves spiritual will be accessing a
similar part of their nature. Of course
this is arguable, and there are plenty of
articles that attempt to clarify the
definitions of spiritual versus religious.
However, if we are genuinely spiritual,
then we can feel the sacred at work in
our lives and that is what ties the multi-
tude of approaches together.
Peter Hill and Kenneth Pargament
discussed this issue in the Journal of
Psychology of Religion and Spirituality
in 2008. Pargament defines spirituality
as "a search for the sacred, a process
through which people seek to discover,
hold onto, and, when necessary, transform
whatever they hold sacred in their lives".
He goes on to describe the sacred as
inclusive of concepts of God, the divine,
or an Ultimate Reality. This kind of awe in
the face of greatness and recognition of a
personal connection with the extraordinary
forms the common ground between
orthodox or traditional religions and more
subjective spiritual life.
In 2001, a paper was published that
drew together 101 studies that examined
religion and spirituality and mortality.
The author Harold Koenig was aware of
the bias towards organised religion in the
studies he looked at and noted that 47 of
the 101 measured religion and spirituality
by religious affiliation only, while another
43 asked about church attendance,
membership in the clergy or their self
assessment of religiousness. That leaves
just 11 of the studies Koenig could draw
together which may measure a more
individually expressed sense of the sacred.
Yet despite the design of the studies
and the limited nature of the spirituality
assessed, the findings are very significant
in predicting health related outcomes.
The evidence is compelling that spiritual
life impacts health and wellness.
One of the largest studies looked at
involved 126,000 participants. The findings
indicated that those who scored high on
measures of religious involvement had
29% higher odds of survival than those
who scored lower (McCollough, Hoyt,
Larson, Koenig and Thoresen, 2000).
Studies such as this one have begun
to intrigue the new breed of holistic
Psychologist Martin Seligman, famous
for shifting the psychological paradigm
away from purely treating disorders
towards enhancing happiness and psych-
ological flourishing, has published articles
in the health psychology field, too. His
ideas about positive health echo the
wellness paradigm of holistic healing.
Seligman theorises that the improved
health outcomes for religious patients are
due to an optimistic explanatory style. That
is, the patients with faith may be more
likely to frame their illness as part of
something spiritual, and seek to draw
wisdom from the experience of being
unwell. It seems to follow that any form
of spiritual belief can provide this positive
approach if the individual has internalised
their faith in a higher power or grand plan
for their lives.
More sophisticated tools to measure
the effect of the sacred on wellbeing are
being developed as the field expands.
Researchers are teasing apart the many
strands of what it means to have a spiritual
perspective and finding that, despite the
complexity and individual variations, it is
possible to measure some aspects of the
One focus is on perceived closeness
to God. For all the religious and spiritual
systems that accept the concept of God
(by any name), feeling close and relating
to that presence is a good indication of
spiritual feeling. Unsurprisingly, a felt
connection to God is closely tied to
better health status. Psychology weighs
in on why this is so with a fascinating
theory: Attachment Theory. Parents may
have read about the 'Strange Situation'
experiments designed by Mary Ainsworth
'The evidence is compelling
that spiritual life impacts health
We can no longer
ignore the compelling
evidence that a spiritual
life improves our health
and healing capacity,
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