This summer I am thrilled to be working as a student researcher at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, one of the hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Last week, my supervisor told me about a recently published study from the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that over the course of a 16-year period, participants who regularly attended religious services had a 33 percent lower mortality rate than those who never attended religious services.[i][ii] In other words, while all the participants would have died eventually if the study had continued, in general those who regularly attended religious services lived significantly longer. What?!
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Life can be busy, and from my experience, this busyness can sometimes lead us off track, especially with regard to spirituality. Perhaps we stop meditating regularly, forget the daily spiritual text we normally read, or neglect to take conscious breaths. Suddenly we find ourselves being reactive instead of proactive, jumping to judgment or defensiveness more quickly, and generally feeling a sense of disconnect—from ourselves, our friends and family, our environment, and our sense of something greater. Getting off track is normal, so there’s no need to be upset with ourselves when it happens (relinquish perfectionism, remember?). However, it’s also not a comfortable place to be, so it’s helpful to have tools that let us jumpstart that return to Connectedness, spirituality, and love.
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Several years ago, during a period of personal crisis, I started to wonder, “What is the difference between religion and spirituality?” I was studying psychology at the time, so I looked into academic research on the topic—and was really disappointed! So much of the research used the terms “spirituality” and “religion” interchangeably, but from my point of view, that didn’t make sense. While it could be argued that most religious people are spiritual, I also knew it was possible to be spiritual but not religious, meaning the two terms are separable.
So, I continued to research and found that some studies do view religion and spirituality as separate, and they generally define religion as something like the formal beliefs, rituals, dogma, and community that collectively create a religious institution.
However, it seemed that nobody could agree on a definition of spirituality! This is probably because spirituality is a very personal topic…and because none of the proposed definitions are quite right. In some cases, the definitions are too vague; in others, too complicated. Furthermore, the definitions that captured my understanding of spirituality are not easy to use in research, while those that are valid for research did not really capture my understanding of spirituality.
I wanted a definition that made sense to me, made sense to other people, and could be used in social science research. I couldn’t find one, so, with the support of my honors thesis professor, I decided to create one.
Three years, two directed studies, and one publication later, I had my definition:
But what does it mean?
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