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The Science Behind the Benefits of ‘Spiritual Thinking’

How spirituality expands our thinking and secures our mental health.

Spiritual thinking
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the 1990s, when I first worked as a religion reporter, a new category of believer was emerging in America. Some of my colleagues called this SBNR: Spiritual, But Not Religious. More recently, journalists responded to demographic data suggesting that as many as twenty percent of the American public identify as “nones,” or having no religious home.

Both “SBNRs” and “nones” are less likely to belong to religious communities or identify overtly with a faith tradition. But in both cases, social science research consistently identified a simple truth—any sense of spirituality, any level of “spiritual thinking” in a person’s life benefits their mental health, their happiness and their resilience.

Lisa Miller, a clinical psychologist and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, has written a new book—The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life—about the brain science behind the mental health benefits of spiritual thinking, regardless of whether or not a person’s spirituality is attached to a religion.

“Spirituality is innate,” Miller recently told The Wall Street Journal, “We can all cultivate this natural capacity and build our spiritual muscle.”

When we do, Miller said, our mental health is more likely to strengthen and be resilient against life’s challenges. “A strong spiritual awareness protects against the most prevalent forms of inner suffering, the diseases of despair: addiction, depression and even suicidality,” she said, referencing multiple studies. These studies are based on brain scans that showed spiritual thoughts to activate parts of the brain associated with greater blood flow, lower stress hormones and emotional responses like bonding with others.

Protection from mental illness is not the only benefit of spiritual thinking, she continued. “Character strengths and virtues such as optimism, grit, commitment and forgiveness go hand-in-hand with strong spiritual awareness. It helps us be more creative. It also leads to more gratitude and more resilience. There is a sense that things will work out.”

“Spiritual thinking,” according to Miller, includes intentional practices to quiet the mind, elevate feelings of awe and gratitude and think generously and altruistically about others.

Meditation, prayer, community fellowship, text study and simple kindness are all ways to cultivate and practice spiritual thinking. For some, those might be connected to a religious congregation or set of teachings. For others, they might have simply evolved over a lifetime of learning, self-reflection and growth.

What does “spiritual thinking” look like in your life? How do you use it to strengthen your emotional health?

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