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Does Being Spiritual Make You Healthier?

Shannon Harvey
This morning I was beamed in over Skype to talk to about 200 dental students at Tufts Medical School. The future dentists had just watched my documentary, The Connection which is about the science of the mind-body-health connection and their professor had arranged for me to answer their subsequent questions. I’ve lost count of the number of similar Q and As I’ve participated in, so you might think that this would be no big deal. But a question from one of the students really threw me. Bright-eyed and inquisitive, she wanted to know what role spirituality had played in my recovery following the diagnosis of my autoimmune disease.

Whoa, I thought, feeling the weight of this question. In the four years since the release of my film, I’ve been asked many things, but no one has ever asked me (a science-based health journalist) to talk about my spirituality and its relationship to my health.

In hindsight I see that the student’s question was likely inspired, in part, by the section in my film in which Harvard professor Herbert Benson, talks about his discovery of the relaxation response. According to Benson, this is a physiological response, opposite to stress, which is characterised by decreased metabolism in the body, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing and slower brain waves. “The two basic features of evoking the relaxation response are a repetition and the disregard of other thoughts when they come to mind. And what those two things do is break the train of everyday thinking,” Benson says in the film.

Benson initially discovered the relaxation response while studying transcendental meditators, but when he returned to the literature of the world to see whether this technique had been described before, he was astonished to find that many spiritual practices involved these two mental steps. “Just as there are scores of techniques that are stressful – same fight or flight response – so there are scores of approaches that evoke the relaxation response,” he told me. If you haven’t seen my film, here’s the excerpt:

Since Benson’s pioneering work in the 1960s and 1970s, research examining religion, spirituality and health has rapidly expanded beyond just studying the relaxation response. Taken as a whole, there are now a strong links between being spiritual and having good health. One review found that 82 percent of studies concluded that spirituality is associated with improved wellbeing and 75 percent of studies associated it with longevity.

There are many reasons that explain this link. For example, researchers have found that Seventh-day Adventists are more likely to live longer, healthier lives because of their vegetarian diet. The Amish (who refrain from driving cars and using electrical appliances) are six times more active than average, which is one of the reasons researchers think they’re so much healthier later in life. More esoterically, research has also demonstrated that the implied presence of a spiritual entity such as God, can reduce acute stress, as can feeling part of a socially supportive religious community.

While I can comfortably talk about this evidence for hours (if you’ll let me), the student’s question over Skype caught me off guard because she was asking me how all this applies to my own life. How has spirituality impacted my health?

I guess this depends on what the definition of spirituality is. I was raised as a Roman Catholic but drifted away from the faith when I learned that women couldn’t be priests and the first of the child abuse cover-ups were exposed. These days I am a dedicated mindfulness meditation practitioner, which is derived from Buddhist traditions, but I’m certainly not a Buddhist. There are abuse scandals rocking the Buddhist world too and the travesties being done under the name of Buddhism in Myanmar are unconscionable.

So, (like an increasing number of people) I am not religious. But am I spiritual?

These days spirituality serves as a catch-all concept for diverse world views. Although religious scholars such as Leigh Schmidt at Princeton conclude that there is neither a single definition nor several compact definitions of spirituality, one interpretation that I like comes from Galen Watts who is undertaking research for her PhD at Queen's University, Ontario and wrote in The Conversation that when milenials call themselves spiritual they are basically signalling three things:

  • First, that they believe there is more to the world than meets the eye, that is to say, more than the mere material.
  • Second, that they try to attend to their inner life — to their mental and emotional states — in the hopes of gaining a certain kind of self-knowledge.
  • Third, that they value the following virtues: being compassionate, empathetic and open-hearted.

If this is the modern definition of being spiritual, then, yes, I’m spiritual. Anyone who’s been following my work will know that I’ve written a lot about the evidence demonstrating that good health is strongly associated with having a sense of meaning and purpose, having supportive relationships, being kind to others, nurturing compassion, examining our inner emotional life, expressing gratitude, as well as learning to savor the good times, practice rituals, and eshew materialism.

Unfortunately, the Skype call into the packed room of highly intelligent dental students at Tufts took place at 6:00am in the morning my time, so my response to the question “What role has spirituality played in your recovery?” was far less articulate than all this. So, with the benefit of a few more hours for consideration, let me set the record straight by saying that for me, spirituality is an intrinsic part of being human and involves a sense of connectedness to others and the world beyond myself. It helps me to be compassionate and care for others and has enabled growth beyond the limitations of my illness. It’s something I’m still working on, but I can now say with conviction that learning to be a spiritual person is one of the most fundamental aspects of the good health that I enjoy today, despite being diagnosed with an incurable chronic disease.

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