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Prayer, meditation, chanting, contemplation, journaling, reading, and singing. Chances are you have turned to one or more of these practices throughout your life—from saying prayers before bed as a child to practicing yoga in the morning as an adult—as a way of connecting to your higher self. People are born with the desire to understand things that they can’t explain, and spirituality points the way toward uncovering life’s mysteries. Despite there being countless religions and spiritual beliefs alive and vibrant in today’s world, science shows that spirituality is a universal tendency, and has a powerfully positive effect on happiness, health, and relationships.
Spirituality is paradoxically both a universal and highly personal concept that tends to highlight two fundamental ideas:
Here are a few powerful definitions of spirituality from some modern teachers in the field:
As you try to define what spirituality means for you, inquire within as to what energy brings meaning to your life. Ask yourself what practices make you feel most alive, expanded, and like yourself. What is the essence of your being? What makes you…you? The art of curating your own definition will be a spiritual experience in and of itself.
In their book, How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman (researcher on the brain and spirituality and therapist, respectively) identify the areas of the brain that shape the human perception of God. A concept of God exists in every person’s brain starting in childhood. Several “God circuits” exist that help to shape each person’s understanding of their higher power. Whether or not you pursue a relationship with a higher power is a personal choice, but the capacity does exist in you.
Each person’s experience of God will differ depending on how much activity is going on in different areas of the brain. For example, the parietal-frontal circuit of the brain may be responsible for a subject-object relationship with the Divine. This area changes activity depending on how separate from or connected to a person feels in any given moment to the God of his or her understanding.
Tal Ben-Shahar, one of the premiere teachers of positive psychology and the good life, defines happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning.” A happy person isn’t so because they only experience positive emotions. Happy people generally experience pleasurable emotions, but also identify their lives as meaningful—that is, they feel they contribute in some way to their community and that they have an effect on the world around them. Since spirituality is so deeply rooted in providing meaning, it is a direct access point for greater happiness.
Spirituality brings a sense of meaning to a chaotic world. When life events (large and small) take on greater significance, spiritual people are better able to cope with stress. Spiritual people are more likely to have gratitude for life’s enjoyable events and to more gracefully process challenging once. Whether it is due to feeling supported by a higher power or being versed in how to surrender to Divine Will, spiritual people identify with life as purposeful, rather than random and meaningless.
Spirituality reassures an order to things, and generally encourages optimism and the pursuit of a joyful life. It helps people to identify their values and appreciate the same values in others. Spiritual people are more altruistic, compassionate, and forgiving of others, because they identify with what connects—rather than what separates—them. Many spiritual traditions encourage belonging to a community, which promote relationships—one of the highest indicators of a happy life. In fact, positive psychology studies show that spiritual people have more positive relationships in general with their spouses, children, and friends.
How can you strengthen your sense of spirituality?
If for whatever reason you feel called to pursue a spiritual path, know that although the pathways vary, everyone is pointed in the same general direction. Getting quiet and learning to calm your mind that only knows how to differentiate and label things, is one of the most powerful things you can do to feel in touch with your true nature.
At your core, you are a spirit that longs to know its fullness. So, practice on! As French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”