Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Spirituality fosters mental health

A new scientific study has revealed that spirituality often enhances the practitioner’s mental health independent of which religion he or she may belong to. The study undertaken by the researchers from University of Missouri, US, found a significantly close relationship between various spiritual practices and the person’s mental or spiritual state.

“In many ways, the results of our study support the idea that spirituality functions as a personality trait,” claimed Dan Cohen, professor of religious studies at University of Missouri and one of the co-authors of the study. “With increased spirituality people reduce their sense of self and feel a greater sense of oneness and connectedness with the rest of the universe,” he added.

But the “frequency of participation in religious activities or the perceived degree of congregational support,” it was found, did not alter the person’s mental state.

The study used the results of three surveys to determine if statistically significant relationships existed among participants’ self-reported mental and physical health, personality factors and spirituality. The participants included buddhists, muslims, jews, catholics and protestants. In all these religions, it was found, that greater degree of spirituality was connected to better mental health, specifically “lower levels of neuroticism and greater extraversion.”

“Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions,” said Cohen. The study led to the probable conclusion that “spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress.”

Cohen reasons that spirituality may help people’s mental health by reducing their self-centeredness and developing their sense of belonging to a larger whole. Thus moving beyond oneself and reaching out to the larger reality was found to be helpful to be more mentally stable. The researchers became aware that different faith traditions encourage spirituality using divergent methods and categories. For instance, a christian devotee would not say he had attained nirvana, nor would a buddhist monk believe that he has become one with Christ. The different spiritual practices, according to the researchers, may be leading to similar consequences.

Researchers are convinced that different spiritual practices like religious-based counselling, meditation, and forgiveness protocols can truly enhance spiritually-based beliefs and practices. In this way, they can become “coping strategies in positive ways.” Cohen opines that the selflessness and altruism, which are related to spirituality “enhances characteristics that are important for fostering a global society based on the virtues of peace and cooperation.”

Sociologically spiritual practices and religion are ways of coping with our existential dilemma. If they have no consequences on the normal life, obviously they are useless. So studies like this, linking spiritual practices to better mental and spiritual health, only confirm what humanity has always known unconsciously: that reaching out to each other and sharing in the human story make us better human beings.

At the religious level, the complex questions are: Is the mental cause attained through spiritual activities the result of a shared experience or because of god? Do we become better through spiritual practices because of our socially constructed and shared experiences or because of the graces of a god, who is totally other?
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)

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