The Benefit of Spirituality on Our Well-Being

A continued interview with Glen Milstein on the effects of spirituality.

Posted Jan 26, 2021

What outcome does our spiritual well-being have on our lives? In this interview, Glen Milstein shares how we can use spirituality and religion to benefit our lives individually and relationally.

Glen Milstein, used with permission
Source: Glen Milstein, used with permission

Glen Milstein is an associate professor in Psychology at The City College of The City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University with training at the Bellevue Hospital Center and an NIMH post-doctoral fellowship at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. The foundation of Dr. Milstein's work with his colleagues is the lifespan development of beliefs: Since humans are born without a word or a prayer, Glen is interested in how the language(s) of religion(s) becomes us through our families, friends, partners, and communities. 

In 2019, he guest-edited a section on Religion and Spirituality in the Context of Disaster for the journal, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. In 2020, He co-edited an issue on Religion and Health for the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community. He is currently part of a task force within the American Psychological Association that is collaborating on a document to provide religious and spiritual competency practice guidelines for psychologists.

This is part two of a two-part interview with Dr. Glen Milstein; you can find Part 1 here.

Jamie Aten: How might readers apply what you found to their lives?

Glen Milstein: What we sought to clarify — which was demonstrated by our research — is that spiritual well-being is beneficial for religious persons. In our study, we found it was protective against depressive symptoms, even if one has strong social support. We learned that it is important to take notice of depressive symptoms and to intervene to reduce these symptoms, with both personal and clinical resources, in order to prevent experiencing worsened occupational distress or burnout.  

If you have a spiritual wisdom tradition that has been a positive influence, we can recommend that you examine and discern how this may serve as a source of meaning, wellness, and emotional support. This — like any exercise — is worthy of time set aside consistently. For some people, this discernment may lead to strengthening current practices, for others it may be a reclamation of a previous path, and for others, it could be a journey on a new path.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others?

GM: Spiritual well-being is a journey, not a destination. The one constant in life is change, which paradoxically can give us more assurance as change shows both that we can work to heal what has been harmed, as well as strengthen what has been diminished.

We found evidence for this in the data from the ministers. For these clergy, 15 percent had a robust increase in their spiritual well-being (SWB) in ministry across one year and 17 percent in their personal SWB. Also, a different 16 percent had a decrease in their SWB in ministry across one year and 15 percent in their personal SWB.

That spiritual well-being varies, is an idea that might create a sense of personal stigma or disappointment in clergy and other religious persons. Therefore, clergy may benefit from recognizing the need to cultivate spiritual well-being across their lifespan. Psychologists can be among those who encourage persons to improve their spiritual well-being and then assess if this results in the positive outcomes suggested by our research. 

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share? 

GM: Our next project with the Clergy Health Initiative will be another examination of a core psychological question: How does one’s early religious upbringing influence one’s adult functioning?

We know that 90 percent of Catholic priests grew up Catholic. What percentage of Methodist ministers grew up Methodist? How does this upbringing appear to predict their occupational distress, ministry satisfaction, and spiritual well-being?

Because of the sustained work of CHI, we will be able to study 10 years of data to measure outcomes. Our initial hypothesis is that those ministers who grew up Methodist will be functioning better. An alternative hypothesis is that by choosing their spiritual path, those not raised Methodist will function better. It is — in the moment — invigorating not to know.

I am also currently preparing for my sabbatical, which will begin in Autumn 2021. I have accepted an invitation to be a Visiting Scholar at the Faculty of Divinity of Cambridge University. While there, I will have the opportunity to dialogue with colleagues as I research and write some of the integrative work I developed over the last 30 years. The working title of this sabbatical project is, “Utility of the Ineffable: Darwin, Religion, and The General Good." 

I also plan to work with the Cambridge Interfaith Programme to offer COPE dialogues for collaboration between clergy and mental health care providers. I will direct my work to learn from human religious experiences in order to find more cogent and empathic ways to engage those people with lived experiences of mental and emotional distress whose strengths are sustained or challenged by their faith(s). 

References

Milstein, G., Hybels, C. F., & Proeschold-Bell, R. J. (2020). A prospective study of clergy spiritual well-being, depressive symptoms, and occupational distress. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 12(4), 409-416. doi:10.1037/rel0000252