In a new study from Baylor University, researchers used smartphone surveys to explore the connection between daily spiritual experiences and overall well-being. The experts found that the positive impacts of spirituality on personal satisfaction are long-lasting.
The team collaborated with researchers at Harvard University to analyze nationwide data, which was collected from volunteers who participated in smartphone check-ins twice a day for two weeks. The study is significant because it evaluates the effects of spiritual experiences over 14 days rather than only one or two points in time, noted the researchers.
Study co-author Dr. Matt Bradshaw is a research professor of Sociology at Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR).
“This study is unique because it examines daily spiritual experiences – such as feeling God’s presence, finding strength in religion or spirituality, and feeling inner peace and harmony – as both stable traits and as states that fluctuate,” said Dr. Bradshaw.
“Because surveys usually capture only one or two points in time, researchers often have to assume that associations between spirituality and positive emotions capture stable traits in respondents rather than momentary states of mind.”
“But these findings suggest that stable, consistent spiritual experiences as well as short-term periodic ones both serve as resources to promote human flourishing and help individuals cope with stressful conditions.”
Study lead author Dr. Blake Victor Kent is a research fellow at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The prevalence of smartphones makes this sort of ‘experience sampling’ study doable on a much larger scale than in the past, when pagers or palm pilots were used to trigger data collection,” said Dr. Kent.
The research was focused on data from SoulPulse, a project designed to study religion, spirituality, and mental and physical well-being. The program involved nearly 2,800 Americans who learned about the study through national media such as the Associated Press.
According to Dr. Kent, daily spiritual experiences are measured as one of two types. Theistic spiritual experiences examine the degree to which God is experienced as present, available, and active in the individual’s life using six questions: “I feel God’s presence,” “I find strength and comfort in my religion or spirituality,” “I feel God’s love for me directly or through others,” “I desire to be closer to God or in union with the divine,” “I feel guided by God in the midst of daily activities” and “I feel close to God.”
Non-theistic spiritual experiences include transcendent feelings that are not specifically connected to God using three questions: “I feel a deep inner peace or harmony,” “I am spiritually touched by the beauty of creation” and “I feel thankful for my blessings.”
To keep the daily surveys short and engaging, 10 to 15 items were selected and appeared with varying frequency. These topics were designed to assess depressive symptoms or positive emotions using statements such as “I feel downhearted and blue,” “I feel that life is meaningless,” “I am unable to become enthusiastic about anything,” “I am feeling happy,” “I am feeling that I have a warm and trusting relationship with others” and “I have something important to contribute to society.”
The participants also reported on whether they had experienced a stressful situation such as an argument with a loved one, illness, job stress, financial problems, or tragedy since their last check-in.
“The findings indicate, as you would expect, that the wear and tear of daily stressors are associated with increased depressive symptoms and lower levels of flourishing,” said Dr. Kent.
“What this study really contributes is that daily spiritual experiences play an important role as well. Essentially, if you take two people who have equal levels of stress, the one with more spiritual experiences will be less likely to report depressive symptoms and more likely to indicate feelings of flourishing. That’s a comparison between two people.
“But what about one person? The unique thing about this study is we are able to show that when someone’s spiritual experiences vary day to day, the ‘above average’ days of spiritual experience are associated with better mental well-being than the ‘below average’ days.”
The study is published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.