When I was a child, my parents divorced, and my mother began dating a man who was verbally and emotionally abusive to us in our home. It lasted 10 years.
Later, as a young man, I finished college, had a good job and was doing well, when suddenly I realized I was angry at life. I really had no reason to be angry—nothing was going on then that should have made me feel that way. So I started to look at that, and over several years, I realized the anger was directly related to that abusive time in my childhood. It was affecting me in so many ways: physically, mentally, emotionally and in my relationships.
When I realized I was still holding on to all these issues, it just dawned on me that for my health and for my enjoyment of life, I had to forgive my abuser—not for his sake but for mine.
I’ve always been very connected to my higher self and to God, and that helped me through trying to make sense of what was going on in my home. Because I had a good spiritual life and because I was connected to God, I knew that I was in a process of forgiveness. I was open to guidance from God and my higher self. I had faith that God was behind me and that I would be led in the right direction and take the next step (whatever that was) when I was ready. This kept me on the right path, even though I didn’t know quite where I was going or what it looked like. I knew that I wanted to be free from the mental anguish, and I trusted that somehow I would find peace. I knew that wherever the path was going would be good for me and that it was providing my soul with a life-changing learning and growing opportunity.
So, I decided to go through a forgiveness process on my own. I delved into my heart and said to myself that my abuser was definitely wrong for his actions, but I wasn’t going to let it affect me negatively anymore. I said that I was done with it and really felt that deep down I was severing a cord. At the end of the process, I was able to send thoughts of healing for his life and his issues—I just felt a need to do that as part of the process. But, again, this release was only for me.
After I forgave him, I felt unbelievably great. It was like a 100-pound gorilla just jumped off my chest. It was amazing. There was a total freedom there. I felt light and airy, like I had a new life.
Later, I knew there was still another piece missing, and I didn’t know quite what it was. I eventually realized I hadn’t forgiven myself. As a child, I thought my job was to protect my mother from our abuser, but I couldn't do that. I just didn’t have the physical or emotional tools to be effective as a boy. But I became aware that I had taken full responsibility for it.
So, I went through the steps to forgive myself and—wow! Everything changed. Self-forgiveness was a huge part of putting this ordeal 100 percent behind me. My life did a total 180 after that day. I experienced an infinite peace. You hear about the peace that transcends all understanding, and that’s what happened to me. That peace is still with me; it’s permanent.
After I forgave myself, my mental and emotional health improved significantly because this event was no longer a source of pain and suffering in my life. Forgiving another and the self-forgiveness process opened me up emotionally where I had been shut down, and that was good for the development of my relationships too. I felt clearer and also better physically.
I learned to overcome the situation, and I learned about true forgiveness through it all. I knew what had happened with this process was of Divine nature—it wasn't just me figuring out what to do. It was a God thing, so it made me even more grateful for what I had in my life. It made me closer to God.
You get a real perspective for life events once you finish a process like this. I came to understand that we all have human wounds to overcome. This perspective gave my adversity purpose and meaning where there had been none before.
Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man.
When a leading expert on longevity traveled the globe to study cultures with the longest-living individuals, he found an important common denominator: “Faith is the one element that most centenarians have in common,” says Dan Buettner, explorer, researcher and author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” and “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way.”
Studies show that faith, as well as spirituality or religion, are linked to longer lives, better physical and emotional health and a higher quality of life.
In 1993, only three out of 125 medical schools in the U.S. had courses that explored the role of spirituality and health, but now, about 90 medical schools have them, says Larry Dossey, M.D., an advocate for the role of spirituality and health and the author of “One Mind: How Our Individual Mind is Part of a Greater Consciousness and Why It Matters,” “Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing” and “Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine.”
“This really is a renaissance in the spirituality-and-health field,” Dossey says. “It’s taking place not because Americans are obsessed with religion but because of the growing scientific evidence that spirituality is vital to our health.”
About 1,200 studies show that people who follow a spiritual path live, on average, longer than people who don’t follow a spiritual path, and they have a lower incidence of most major diseases, Dossey says.
Consider the conclusion of a group of experts in medicine, epidemiology, public health and social sciences who stated they personally had a “host of differing religious beliefs, including having few or none.” The experts looked at the best epidemiological studies and said, “We see evidence of a strong association between religious involvement and health.” They also found that “religion is a factor that should not be overlooked in describing influences on the health of a population.”1
A study of 3,600 people found that those who attended a religious service at least once a month had a 30 percent to 35 percent reduced risk of death over a 7.5-year period.2
Another report summarizing the scientific research states, “Patient spirituality and religiosity have been shown to be correlated with reduced morbidity and mortality, better physical and mental health, healthier lifestyles, fewer required health services, improved coping skills, enhanced well-being, reduced stress, and illness prevention.”3 The aforementioned researchers added that “most physicians believe spirituality has a positive effect on physical and mental well-being of patients.”
Count among those physicians psychiatrist Henry Emmons, M.D., who has a private practice in Minneapolis and is author of “The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom” and “The Chemistry of Calm: A Powerful, Drug-Free Plan to Quiet Your Fears and Overcome Your Anxiety.”
“Spiritual activity and turning inward is a way to increase our capacity to handle greater amounts of stress or loss or life challenges without becoming thrown off balance by them,” Emmons says. “In a sense, spirituality changes the whole health dynamic because it changes what you view as stressful and how you react and respond to it.”
Spirituality: Not to be confused with religion
What exactly is spirituality? First, it frequently overlaps with religion, but it’s also distinguished from religion, which is a structured community or institution that stands by common beliefs and follows certain practices, rituals, rites or ceremonies. At its best, religion nurtures and strengthens participants’ spiritual exploration and deepens their faith. Religion can offer a community of learning and support that encourages personal and spiritual growth.
But a person can be spiritual separate from any religious involvement. In addition, someone can participate in a religion but still lack a genuine spiritual connection. Some ways to describe spirituality include:
Connectedness to your higher self, soul or spirit
Awareness of a higher power or something divine
A sense that you’re part of a bigger story
Faith in the order of the universe or in your experience as a human being
Awe for life, creation and nature
A search for meaning and personal growth
Fostering qualities of faith, hope, love, peace, compassion, strength, mercy and joy
Knowing, and following, your heart
One fairly accessible and universal way to think of spirituality is this: We all have a higher self or soul. Each soul has a spark of something divine in it and is connected to an even higher or greater power, often referred to as God, Creator, Spirit or Source. Some people describe the soul as an eternal, individualized expression of God.
The exact words people use and the specific practices they follow to honor their sense of spirit can be as unique as a fingerprint. Some people feel most connected to a Higher Power while on a walk in the woods, and for others, that connection comes most readily through religious rituals in a church community. The point is that spirituality is inclusive and available to everyone everywhere.
The power of contemplation
Contemplative practices, including prayer, meditation and time set aside for reflection, are one common theme in spiritual exploration and growth. Perhaps contemplation is fundamental to spiritual growth in part because it helps you see and know yourself better.
“Depression can result when we don’t truly know ourselves or when we fail to honor the deepest dictates of our own heart,” Emmons writes in “The Chemistry of Joy.” “When we fail to listen to it or fail to heed what we hear, we set up the conditions for unhappiness.”
Knowing yourself on the deepest level possible means recognizing and following the guidance of your heart, soul or spirit. Think of your relationship with yourself and with a higher power as you would any relationship; it needs time and loving attention to flourish. Regular prayer, meditation and time for reflection are ways to develop and strengthen a relationship with your spirit and higher power. For this reason, these practices are important for people who want to grow spiritually.
Taking something as intangible as prayer and holding it to objective scientific study is inherently challenging. But even though this field of research is in its infancy, Dossey says researchers have already conducted many promising double-blind, controlled, scientific studies on prayer’s positive effects on health.
“The best scientific studies have examined the effects of prayer on heart disease, advanced AIDS and infertility, with positive findings in all these situations,” Dossey says.
Several controlled experiments suggest that prayer for another person can influence that person’s health even when he or she isn’t aware the prayer is being offered, he adds.
In addition, contemplative practices, including prayer and meditation, are known to lower levels of stress hormones in the body and induce what’s referred to as the relaxation response, a phrase created by Herbert Benson, M.D., a cardiologist and pioneer in mind-body medicine. The relaxation response, which is basically the opposite of the stress response, involves lower heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure, as well as more relaxed muscles.4
Many schools of spiritual thought encourage a time of rest or Sabbath because it’s good for your spirit. But those habits are also good for your physical and mental health.
Know thyself, and you’ll be glad
One of the major benefits of a stronger relationship with your higher self or soul is sharper intuition, says spiritual teacher and forgiveness expert Mary Hayes Grieco, author of “Unconditional Forgiveness: A Simple and Proven Method to Forgive Everyone and Everything” and “The New Kitchen Mystic: A Companion for Spiritual Explorers.”
In the latter book, she writes that intuition is “the prompting of our souls to take the paths that will bring us the highest good in our lives.” 5
Intuition is your helpful inner voice or a quiet knowing. It’s guidance from deep in your heart. It’s a feeling in your gut.
Hayes Grieco writes, “Your intuition is trying to show you only one thing all the time: how to be happy as you. It’s there to make life easier. Your intuition will help you understand your purpose, unfold it, and solve everyday problems.
“Your intuition transmits visions for a life-direction that will make you happy, using your unique nature to the fullest.”
So, tapping into your intuition and further connecting to your higher self and a higher power can provide you with helpful guidance, direction and purpose for a fulfilling life, experts say.
Your evolving purpose(s)
When people think of purpose, they often think in terms of a job or career. But that’s only one type of many, Hayes Grieco says, and your purposes can evolve over time. But the most basic purpose we all have in common, she says, is “to learn and to love, to see yourself as a student in life’s classroom.”
When you’re in line with your purpose, Emmons says, you enjoy yourself and feel a sense of completeness or a deep satisfaction. “The chemistry of joy is based on aligning your body, mind and heart in service to your soul and its design. Your soul will teach you how to be fully in this world and how to give yourself to that which you are meant to do. Choose to follow this path with all of yourself, wholeheartedly, and you will be a whole, vital, joyous human being,” Emmons writes in his book “The Chemistry of Joy.”
One common spiritual teaching is that when your soul is aligned with God’s will, you’ll be living your highest calling here on Earth.
Purpose is definitely an important part of living well, Buettner says. “The world’s longevity all-stars not only live longer, they also tend to live better,” he writes in “The Blue Zones.” “They wake up in the morning knowing that they have a purpose, and the world, in turn, reacts to them in a way that propels them along.”
Fruits of a grateful heart
Another spiritual practice with immeasurable—yet proven—effects is gratitude. Giving thanks has been an integral part of faith traditions through the ages. It’s a powerful habit that can help you see your life and the world from a different perspective. Being thankful boosts happiness and is a boon to physical health.
Research shows that people who are grateful “experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness,” writes Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leader in the field of positive psychology, in his book “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.”67 Consider the following:
In one study, a group of participants recorded five things they were thankful for every week for 10 weeks. Participants in a second group recorded five hassles from the week, and participants in the third group listed five events or circumstances that affected them one way or another. After 10 weeks, the people who recorded things for which they were grateful were 25 percent happier than the other participants. They also had fewer health complaints and spent more time exercising.89
A study of more than 2,600 twins showed that high levels of thankfulness were associated with a reduced risk for psychiatric and substance-abuse disorders, including depression, phobias, anxiety, bulimia nervosa, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, drug abuse and adult antisocial behavior.10
Research from the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, Calif., showed that when people focus on feelings of appreciation, their heart rhythms are different from those seen when people are angry or even relaxed.11Heart rhythm patterns of people focused on negative emotions are erratic and sharp, whereas those of people in a state of gratitude are consistent and smooth. The patterns seen when people induce thankfulness indicate that the heart is operating efficiently and the nervous system is in balance. Other studies have shown that these heart qualities have positive effects on the immune system and on hormonal balance.12
A study of adults with neuromuscular disorders showed that those who participated in gratitude exercises reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, felt more connected with others, slept more hours each night, fell asleep faster and woke up more refreshed than the control group.13
The flip side: barriers for the spirit
Just as a rich spiritual life can be highly rewarding, a distressful spiritual life can be deeply painful. It’s not uncommon to have negative emotions about God or to feel blocked off spiritually, but experts say there are ways to work through these challenges.
One major barrier to a flourishing spiritual life is resentment, which Hayes Grieco describes as a clog in the pipeline that connects you with your higher self and Higher Power. Failing to work toward forgiveness—of others and yourself—stops up what could otherwise be a free-flowing, close and energizing connection.
“Forgiveness is releasing an expectation that has been causing one to suffer,” she says. The process changes us physically, energetically and emotionally, and it reconnects us spiritually, experts say.
The most powerful effects of true forgiveness are beyond measure: stronger connections with your soul and God, emotional freedom and feeling lighter and more peaceful.14 (It makes sense, then, that forgiveness is integral to every major religion.)
The tangible benefits of forgiveness are impressive, as well. Studies show that people living in chronically stressful situations who have been taught to forgive experience lower blood pressure, improved immune system response, reduced anxiety and depression, improved quality of sleep, improved self-esteem and sense of empowerment, reduced stress, reduced dysfunctional patterns of behavior, improved quality of personal and professional relationships, increased energy levels, improved sense of social integration and belonging, increased peace of mind in daily life and an increased sense of peace in the dying process.15
Of the nearly 260 people who participated in a six-week forgiveness course through the Stanford Forgiveness Project, upon completing the training, 70 percent said they experienced a decrease in hurt feelings, and 27 percent reported fewer physical complaints.16
Another barrier to a flourishing spiritual life for some people is, unfortunately, a past or an ongoing negative—or even painful—experience with religion. Although research shows that religious involvement generally contributes to health and happiness, 1718 some religious institutions dole out steady doses of guilt, fear and shame, or they portray God as punishing and humanity as inherently bad. These kinds of messages, especially during a person’s formative years, can negatively influence how people view themselves and the world. They can also close people down spiritually.
“Spirituality, that is, connection with a greater story of profound meaning, is a powerful force at play in our lives, whether we realize it or not,” says Gregory A. Plotnikoff, M.D., M.T.S, F.A.C.P, who practices at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis.
Plotnikoff, a physician who has a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, says that people’s past faith traditions, as well as their current beliefs, come into play when they face another source of spiritual difficulty: illness or death.
“The biggest challenges I see are when we encounter a profound change, a new diagnosis or a loss of function or body image that threatens our spirituality,” he says.
For Plotnikoff, this spiritual angst is apparent in questions and comments such as, “Why doesn’t God care for me? Where’s God when I need Him most? Why aren’t my prayers working? I’m being punished. I blame God for this.”
“Spiritual distress is essentially a form of disconnection,” he says. “When someone feels betrayed by their own body and is disconnected at that most basic level, it’s hard to trust.
“My sense is that the antidote is to reconnect, with one’s own body (through things like yoga, massage or other grounding practices), with nature, with others and with faith. Reconnection gives people hope and inspiration and the capacity to endure and embrace all that appears on their doorstep—good and bad.”
7Emmons RA, et al. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;84(2):377. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12585811↩
9Emmons RA, et al. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;84(2):377. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12585811↩
13Emmons RA, et al. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;84(2):377. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12585811↩