Negative Spiritual Beliefs Can Sabotage Your Well-Being

A belief that a "higher power" made you sick is linked to worse health outcomes.

Posted Sep 24, 2015

J.M.W. Turner/Public Domain
Source: J.M.W. Turner/Public Domain

In the fourth grade, I became a Mennonite. It was 1975. I would read Bible stories every day, listened to Morning Has Broken religiously, and went to Mennonite church on Sundays. As a 9-year-old boy, I believed that if I sinned, God would punish me. I lived in fear of a lightning bolt striking me down if I said a curse word or told a lie. 

Over the years, my spirituality has evolved to be more secular and science based. I believe that positive actions such as altruism, loving-kindness, forgiveness, fostering close-knit bonds, and working hard to make the world a better place all reinforce someone's state of well-being. 

The health benefits of being guided by a moral compass have nothing to do with God. I believe that "doing the right thing" and living by the Golden Rule creates an upward spiral of well-being. Our universal neurobiological responses—linked to "tend-and-befriend" and "rest-and-digest"—are part of the parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve, which help to create better health outcomes. 

On the flip side, I believe that negative actions and emotions, driven by greed, holding a grudge, hate, and bigotry create a toxic environment that lowers your immunity, increases stress hormones, blood pressure... Simply put, I believe that sustained hyperactivity of the "fight-or-flight" mechanisms of the sympathetic nervous system creates a downward health spiral. 

I still adhere to many of the core values and lessons I learned in Mennonite church about magnanimity, volunteerism, nonviolence, and peace efforts. The Mennonites are one of two "Peace Churches" in the United States, the Quakers are the other. The Mennonite Disaster Service, provides both immediate and long-term responses to hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters. 

Do You Believe that a Higher Power Can Make You Healthy or Sick? 

Brick Johnstone and colleagues at the University of Missouri (MU) have been conducting fascinating research on the positive and negative impact of having strong spiritual beliefs on someone's physical and mental health, as well as perceptions of pain. Johnstone is a neuropsychologist and professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions.

In 2012, Johnstone et al published a paper, "Relationships Among Spirituality, Religious Practices, Personality Factors, and Health for Five Different Faiths," in the Journal of Religion and Health. This study analyzed the results of three surveys to determine if correlations existed among participants' self-reported mental and physical health, personality factors, and spirituality among: Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants.

Although a Christian wouldn't say that he or she was trying to achieve a state Nirvana, nor would a Buddhist monk say he had communed with Jesus Christ... each practitioner may well be referring to similar phenomena using a different vernacular. Ideally, all religous roads lead to the same place of loving-kindness and forgiveness.  

The researchers found that despite differences in specific rituals and beliefs among the world's major religions, that being spiritual tended to improve someone's health, regardless of his or her actual religion. In a press release, Dan Cohen, assistant teaching professor of religious studies at MU and one of the co-authors of the study said, 

In many ways, the results of our study support the idea that spirituality functions as a personality trait. With increased spirituality people reduce their sense of self and feel a greater sense of oneness and connectedness with the rest of the universe.

What was interesting was that frequency of participation in religious activities or the perceived degree of congregational support was not found to be significant in the relationships between personality, spirituality, religion and health.

Across all five faiths, a greater degree of spirituality was linked to better mental health, specifically lower levels of neuroticism and higher levels of extraversion. Interestingly, forgiveness was the only spiritual trait that predicted better mental health after all other personality variables were considered.

"Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury, and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions," said Cohen. "Spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress."

Cohen believes spirituality may help people's mental health by reducing their self-centeredness and allowing them to develop a sense of belonging to a larger collective and something bigger than themselves. A sense of selflessness and magnanimity that can grow out of spirituality fortifies characteristics that are important for nurturing a global society based on the virtues of love, peace, and cooperation

Caspar David Friedrich/Public Domain
Source: Caspar David Friedrich/Public Domain

Believing that a Higher Power Is Punishing You Can Sabotage Health Outcomes

In September 2015, Johnstone et al published another study, “Relationships Between Negative Spiritual Beliefs and Health Outcomes for Individuals with Heterogeneous Medical Conditions,” in the Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health

The researchers found that Individuals who blame karma or a "divine curse" for their poor health tend to experience higher levels of pain and inferior physical and mental health. In a press release, Johnstone described this study saying, 

In general, the more religious or spiritual you are, the healthier you are, which makes sense. But for some individuals, even if they have even the smallest degree of negative spirituality—basically, when individuals believe they're ill because they've done something wrong and God is punishing them—their health is worse.

For this study, Johnstone and his colleagues studied nearly 200 individuals to identify how their spiritual beliefs affected their health outcomes. Individuals in the study had a range of health conditions, such as cancer, traumatic brain injury or chronic pain. A control group in the study consisted of physically healthy people.

The researchers divided the individuals into two groups: a "negative spirituality group" who reported feeling abandoned or punished by a higher power, and a "not negative spirituality" group that consisted of people who didn't feel abandoned or punished by a higher power. Participants answered questions about their emotional and physical health, including physical pain.

Those in the negative spirituality group reported significantly higher perceptions of pain as well as worse physical and mental health. Those with positive spirituality reported better mental health. However, the researchers discovered that even if individuals reported general positive spiritual beliefs, having any degree of negative spiritual belief was found to contribute to poorer health outcomes. 

"Previous research has shown that about 10 percent of people have negative spiritual beliefs; for example, believing that if they don't do something right, God won't love them," Johnstone said in a press release. "That's a negative aspect of religion when people believe, 'God is not supportive of me. What kind of hope do I have?' However, when people firmly believe God loves and forgives them despite their shortcomings, they had significantly better mental health."

Rembrandt/Public Domain
Source: Rembrandt/Public Domain

Conclusion: Positive Spiritual Beliefs and Faith May Improve Your Well-Being

The new research from MU suggests that negative spiritual beliefs are correlated with reduced physical and mental health and increased perceptions of pain. Conversely, positive spirituality was correlated with better overall health and less pain. The researchers conclude that creating specific interventions to counteract negative spiritual beliefs could help some individuals decrease pain and improve their overall well-being.

There is one important caveat. All too often, there is a 'blame the victim' component inadvertently built into correlating good health with a person's mindset, spirituality, or having a positive attitude. Your sickness or health is not strictly linked to a belief system or explanatory style. Most deadly viruses and malignant diseases don't give a damn about your spirituality or religion.

Yes, optimists and people with positive spiritual beliefs may have a buffer against illness, but there are so many cancers, diseases, and plagues that can cause someone to get sick and die. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic decimated my community. In the Reagan Era, the double-whammy for any gay person with HIV/AIDS was that Christian conservatives and the homophobic religious right believed that people who contracted HIV were sinners and "deserved" to get sick and die. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there was a "New Age" movement based on a spiritual belief in the power of "divine miracles" that unintentionally made some people who got and stayed sick subconsciously believe that they were spiritually inadequate or defective. There was an unspoken judgement that if you couldn't pray or meditate successfully enough to get better, that you were somehow "less than."

That said, any degree of negative spiritual belief—regardless of your positive spiritual beliefs—appears to be associated with worse health outcomes based on the latest research from MU. Therefore, developing targeted interventions that specifically address negative spiritual explanatory styles could benefit spiritual believers from all religions and those of us who have a secular faith in something universal and bigger than ourselves.

To watch my Stonewall Portraits interview about spirituality with Brian McNaught click here. I'm definitely not a poet, but I did write and publish a poem on p. 330 of The Athlete's Way (St. Martin's Press) based on my life experience and observations. 

THE ATHLETE'S RECOGNITION by Christopher Bergland

Recognize that god is alive and well in every cell.                                           Recognize that god is in us all.

Recognize this source of power—every hour, here.                                         Recognize with strength and love there is no fear. 

Recognize the light in every eye and soul.                                                       Recognize the sun lives in us all.

Recognize your thoughts and actions every day.                                             Recognize the passion—always give your all.

Recognize One Blood, One Sun, One Hope, One Love.                                 Recognize the collective conscience of humankind. 

Recognize that god is living everywhere.                                                         Recognize that god is you and I.                                                                 

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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