What Is Spirituality?
Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to a church, synagogue, mosque, and so on. For others, spirituality is a non-religious experience that varies from person to person—some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, a belief in the supernatural, or long walks.
Not everyone would describe themselves as spiritual, but the instinct towards spirituality is deeply ingrained in humans. In short, humans can’t help but ask big questions—it’s wired into the brain. Research shows that even skeptics can’t stifle the sense that there is something greater than the concrete world they see. As the brain processes sensory experiences, it naturally looks for patterns—and people’s conscious selves often seek out meaning in those patterns. This can lead to the phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance,” which describes how, once one believes in something, one is strongly inclined to try to explain away anything that conflicts with it. Cognitive dissonance is not unique to religion or spirituality, but it can often occur in the context of such beliefs.
Measuring spirituality is a challenge. With a few exceptions, the percentage of adults identifying as religious in many industrialized countries is declining, while remaining generally high in less developed nations. But spirituality and religious affiliation aren’t necessarily synonymous, and it’s highly possible that even as affiliation decreases, spirituality could remain steady or even increase. While no causal link has been established, higher levels of spirituality have been linked to increased compassion, strengthened relationships, and improved self-esteem. There may also be a downside to eschewing spirituality entirely: Some research has indicated that avoiding “magical thinking” and being unable to identify patterns in the surrounding world may be linked to depression or anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.