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What Is Spirituality?

Spirituality can mean different things to different people. For some, it's primarily about participation in organized religion. For others, it's a non-religious experience that involves getting in touch with their spiritual selves through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or time in nature.

An instinct toward spirituality appears to be deeply ingrained in humans. People can't help but ask big questions—research shows that even declared skeptics can't stifle a sense that there is something greater than the physical world they see.

As the brain processes sensory experiences, it naturally looks for patterns—and people's conscious selves often seek 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 often occurs in the context of such beliefs.

Are Spiritual People Healthier?

Many people identify as spiritual but not religious: 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. It’s highly possible that even as religious affiliation decreases, a sense of spiritual identification could remain steady or even increase.

No causal link has been established, but higher levels of spirituality have been linked to increased compassion, strengthened relationships, and improved self-esteem. And there may 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.

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