Oftentimes, when we think of wellbeing, we think of physical and emotional wellbeing as being the primary attributes to a healthy life. Though they’re a critical part of the puzzle, spiritual wellbeing is arguably the strongest driving force in human beings – discovering our purpose, why we’re here, and a search for hope, harmony, and connection to something bigger than ourselves.
According to research and professors of clinical psychology and the social and natural sciences, spirituality is undeniably part of the human experience, since birth. But what exactly is spirituality and how can we incorporate spirituality into our lives, especially when going through cancer, in order to become healthier and happier?
What is spiritual wellbeing?
Spirituality is a word used in a diverse and broad range of contexts, meaning different things for different people – depending on different cultures, times and environments. Here are a few different explanations of what spirituality or spiritual well being is:
According to Mental Health Foundation’s review of the impact of spirituality on mental health outlines a few common themes that spirituality incorporates, regardless of culture, creed, or country:
- A sense of purpose
- A sense of connection – to self, others nature, God, or Other
- A quest for wholeness
- A search for hope or harmony
- A belief in a higher being or beings
- Some level of transcendence or the sense that there is more to life than the material or practical
- Activities that give meaning and value to people’s lives
Whether subconscious or conscious, the need to make sense of the world around us and of our meaning and place within it is a key element to the human condition and experience. Spirituality is a vehicle in which to explore that meaning, which varies according to a myriad of factors including age, gender, culture, health, political ideology, and more. For many, that vehicle is religion but can be sought apart from religious structures.
But how is spirituality different from values or humanism or our morals? A research review published by the NCBI outlines how spirituality differs from all other things because of its connection to the transcendent:
“Spirituality is distinguished from all other things—humanism, values, morals, and mental health—by its connection to that which is sacred, the transcendent. The transcendent is that which is outside of the self, and yet also within the self—and in Western traditions is called God, Allah, HaShem, or a Higher Power, and in Eastern traditions may be called Brahman, manifestations of Brahman, Buddha, Dao, or ultimate truth/reality. Spirituality is intimately connected to the supernatural, the mystical, and to organized religion, although also extends beyond organized religion (and begins before it). Spirituality includes both a search for the transcendent and the discovery of the transcendent and so involves traveling along the path that leads from nonconsideration to questioning to either staunch nonbelief or belief, and if belief, then ultimately to devotion and finally, surrender. Thus, our definition of spirituality is very similar to religion and there is clearly overlap.”
This comprehensive definition of spirituality from Professor John Swinton summarizes it well:
“Spirituality is that aspect of human existence that gives it its ‘humanness’. It concerns the structures of significance that give meaning and direction to a person’s life and helps them deal with the vicissitudes of existence. As such it includes such vital dimensions as the quest for meaning, purpose, self transcending knowledge, meaningful relationships, love and commitment, as well as [for some] a sense of the Holy amongst us.”
Lastly, Ben Tal Shahar, PhD, is an author and lecturer in positive psychology, including Harvard’s most popular course ever on the Science of Happiness. He’s the Co-founder of the SPIRE framework that is a model to approach well being comprehensively in order to live a life of happiness. He puts it simply by explaining that spirituality is “having a sense of meaning and purpose. This can be through, for example, religion, spirituality, meditation, or being present. Being present to the wonder of reality outside and inside us.”
The link between spiritual wellbeing and mental health and depression
Research shows religious and spiritual beliefs and practices are effective in coping with illness or other stressful life changes, such as a cancer diagnosis. A large volume of research shows that people who are more religious or spiritual have better mental health and have the ability to adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less religious or spiritual. And as we know, mental health and wellbeing influences our physical wellbeing, including risk of disease and response to treatment.
Dr. Lisa Miller, clinical psychologist, scientist, professor, and founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute – the first Ivy League graduate program in spirituality and psychology – has studied the way in which depression and spirituality are interlinked, in adults and children. She explains:
“The very nature of depression is a call for spiritual deepening. The science in my lab at Columbia University suggests that spirituality and depression are actually two sides of one door. The very same knock at the door that we feel as suffering is the knock at the door that opens into a whole new awareness. The spiritually engaged brain appears to be the antidote to recurrent depression. There are actual structural changes in the brain associated with a sustained, personal spirituality… an actual thickening in the brain in precisely the same regions that we would expect to see thinning because of depression. Our research, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, shows that once we women establish our spiritual core, from the new spiritual hub, we’re 90% less likely to have a recurrence of depression.”
Cool, huh? Here’s Dr. Lisa Miller’s TED talk about the link between depression and spirituality if you’d like to listen in and learn more.
Practices we can implement to grow spiritually
Whether or not you’re part of a faith-based community, there are practices that can help grow your personal spiritual self and connect you to your core.
Universally, practicing gratitude does wonders for our spirituality. Even if we’re in the hardest places of our lives, whether that’s dealing with cancer or fearing the unknown, actively thinking about and being grateful for specific moments throughout your day can help you come back to the present moment. How? Try writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of every day or share what you’re grateful for with a loved one. Or, give thanks through prayer.
Whatever way you choose, a tip to get started is to be very specific. For example, “I’m thankful for the walk I shared in the park” or “I really appreciated this specific phone call with this friend” rather than going broad like “I’m thankful for family and friends.” It will bring your awareness to all of the micro moments that you appreciate each day.
Remember that you can express gratitude directly towards someone who’s been there for you, done something for you, shown love, or helped you. The beauty with practicing gratitude is that it makes you aware of everything you do have in life, rather than letting your thoughts ruminate on what you don’t. This inspires you to pass on the love and make someone else’s life a little brighter.
Actively practicing gratitude and having it become second nature – indeed, a mindset – pays off in other aspects of your wellbeing as well. It’s been shown to improve sleep, boost your immune system, and reduce the risk of disease.
A simple explanation of presence or mindfulness is focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. People can achieve this through a variety of different methods – breathing exercises, meditation, prayer, or simply practicing awareness by focusing one’s awareness on what is happening in the present moment – the chirping of the birds, your friend laughing.
Coming back into the present and becoming aware of the world around you is a universal spiritual practice and research shows mindfulness to be helpful for people affected by cancer – stress and disturbance declines.
Clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, talks about petting the cat when you encounter one on the street. What he means is, even amidst suffering and experiencing hardship, such as cancer, you’re still given small moments where possibilities to experience the goodness in the world shine through. Take the time – the chance – to appreciate the little things that bring joy, give love, and connect you with the world around you.
In order to be able to see and take those opportunities, you need to be able to keep your eyes open and your mind aware of those redemptive elements when they pop into your life. Practicing presence is a way to become aware of those moments, and letting them brighten your life.
Practice care for fellow living beings
Spirituality grows not when we keep to ourselves, but when we dare to share our lives with others. Celebrating together, being there for each other, are all spiritual moments where we come together, share joy, experience hardship, and support each other.
Showing care towards others, knowing we are all connected, is a beautiful way to deepen your personal spirituality. How? Well, time is our most precious resource and giving it away freely to others and for the greater good is proven to do us well. Research shows that people who are generous, help others, and live in community with others experience physiological changes in the brain that are connected with happiness. It also increases our sense of belonging and reduces isolation, which is something of us who are affected by cancer struggle with.
We can also give in other ways – our energy, money, talents, awareness, whatever it may be. Give monthly to an organization or initiative you believe in. Become aware of how you impact the people or planet around you and see what you can do to better care for them. Invite people who experience loneliness for a walk or talk or meal. Prepare food for someone who doesn’t have the energy (we are better able to focus on our spiritual wellbeing when our basic needs are being met). Smile at a tired caretaker.
By being in connection with others, we expand our worldview, invite each other into our inner worlds, and grow spiritually. Of course, there’s the extreme, when you give too much and it tears on you. It’s about finding the balance. Brené Brown, a professor, author and researcher on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, sums it up: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us… practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”
A web of lives weaved together is much more resilient than a single string. And that’s how we’re built to thrive.
Don’t know where to start? Join the War On Cancer community where you can connect with and share life with others who want to grow with you.