- For those who value spirituality, practices found by scientists to boost well-being may hold special significance.
- Meditation, awe, forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude provide practical ways to increase well-being.
- Spiritual practices can be conducted individually, but they may have more impact when practiced in a community.
For thousands of years, religious and spiritual communities around the world have organized themselves around specific practices they find meaningful.
In recent years, psychological scientists have been in conversation with such communities, trying to learn about these practices, sometimes refine them, and test the effects of related interventions on well-being. For those who consider themselves somehow spiritual – about 86 percent of American adults in one recent nationally representative survey – these activities may hold special significance. Although whether or not a practice really is “spiritual” depends on the person and what they hold sacred, these activities may be central parts of a lifestyle that prioritizes and integrates spirituality and well-being.
Below are five forms of spiritual practice that psychological research suggests increase well-being.
Meditation practices refer to a broad collection of activities that seek to focus the mind. Really almost anything can be support for attention during meditation practice. For example, we can focus on our breathing, a meaningful word of our choice, the movement of light on the floor as it comes through a window, the sound of a bird, sensations of emotional or physical pain, a text that holds spiritual significance, the kindness of a loved one, or the presence of the divine, just to name a few. In recent years, a variety of apps have become available to help people engage in these kinds of activities.
Researcher Dacher Keltner defines awe as the feeling we get when we’re in the presence of a vast mystery that transcends our understanding of the world. For instance, we might feel awe in the presence of something huge, powerful, timeless, or intricate. Other people can leave us awestruck as well because of their astounding virtue, knowledge, or skill.
Taking an intentional awe walk is one way we can seek awe. This might involve taking at least 15 minutes to stroll through a natural area, maybe one that brings us through a wooded area, a field of flowers, or near a lake or river. Alternatively, we can walk under the night sky, at dawn or dusk, or while a thunderstorm takes shape in the distance. As we walk, part of the practice entails taking our time to really try to take in what we notice as vast, for example, by allowing ourselves to be swept away by a view or amazed by the detail of a flower.
Forgiveness refers to a process of letting go of negative emotions and the urges to seek revenge or avoid another because of the pain they caused us. Importantly, forgiveness need not involve telling a person we forgive them, condoning or forgetting a hurtful action, or restoring a relationship.
Everett Worthington and his colleagues crafted a specific forgiveness practice they summarized with the acronym “REACH” (recall, empathy, altruism, choose, and hold). In this practice, we bring to mind as accurately as possible what someone did to hurt us. We then seek to put ourselves into the shoes of our offenders, trying to imagine what kinds of past or present forces could have led them to their regrettable actions. At this point, we may choose to give the gift of forgiveness (the gift being mostly for ourselves). As difficult feelings resurface, we may need to hold onto this decision and return to this process of surrender.
Compassion means “to suffer with” or “to suffer together.” One way to increase compassion is through a meditation practice in which we call people to mind and extend them good wishes, such as:
“May you feel safe.”
“May you feel content.”
“May you feel strong.”
“May you live with ease.”
This can begin with a loved one in mind. We can then progress to a familiar stranger, such as a neighbor. Next, we can continue with someone we’re struggling with, perhaps someone we feel disgusted by or contempt toward. Finally, we might imagine groups of people we don’t know, from different groups or in different parts of the world, to connect with our care for all humanity.
Self-compassion is similar but involves a practice where we intentionally give kindness to ourselves, recognizing with warmth and care that we also are human and limited. We can extend to ourselves good wishes such as:
“May I feel safe.”
“May I feel content.”
“May I feel strong.”
“May I live with ease.”
According to Robert Emmons, gratitude involves a recognition of the good in our lives and how that good comes from sources outside ourselves.
One tried-and-true gratitude practice is called “Three Good Things.” In this exercise, we pause to savor, share, or write about three good things in our day. As a part of this, we pause to appreciate and express thanks for the sources that made these good things possible.
Another simple but powerful way to practice gratitude is to write letters or notes expressing our appreciation to people who did something special for us – something that impacted us positively or made us feel good – and to whom we haven’t sufficiently expressed our deep thanks.
These five forms of spiritual practice related to meditation, awe, forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude may be practiced individually, but they may have more impact when practiced in a community, motivated by a bigger purpose. As some Quakers like to say, we each bring a light, but when we come together, that light shines brighter.
Is there a practice you’ve read about here you’d like to try or make into more of a habit? Doing so may help you feel more grounded and help you in your value to make the world a better place.