I tend to be a curious person. I like to ask questions. Often at home when I do not understand something, I will wonder out loud, “Why?” or “How come?” For years this habit frustrated my wife. If you have ever been around a curious toddler, you know how my wife felt. She felt compelled to give an answer, but often I was asking questions that did not have clear or obvious answers. “I don’t know! Why are you asking me?” she’d respond. I was not really expecting her to have an answer, I just cannot keep my curiosity to myself. My wife is wonderful, and after 20 years of marriage she has accepted my curiosity. She might even find it endearing. I’m not sure, you’d have to ask her.
Here is a question: What is the meaning of life? That question has perplexed humankind for millennia. It perplexes me too. We can only assume that questions of meaning and purpose have been rattling around in the human consciousness since the beginning of human consciousness. The ways in which we answer the question of the meaning of life have a significant impact on how we live our life. In fact, even the ways we wrestle with, and seek to understand or discern the meaning of life have a direct impact on the decisions we make, the actions we choose, and the values we live by.
One way humans approach and relate to the question of ultimate meaning is through spirituality. Spirituality refers to the transcendent qualities of life in relationship to ultimate meaning. It involves awareness of and belief in something bigger than ourselves, and an awareness of the interconnectedness of the cosmos. A spiritually awake person is someone who has come to two conclusions: There is more to life than just my existence - more than what can be easily perceived through my senses; and what I do in life matters because of the way I am connected to others and the universe.
A person’s spirituality is often organized and expressed in religious beliefs and behaviors. Religion, in this way, is very useful. Religion organizes the answer(s) to the question of what the meaning of life is, and it helps define values and purpose.
It is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the way we answer the question of the meaning of life, and the way we express spirituality and engage in religious practices, can have an impact on our mental health. Research has found a relationship between religious involvement and lower rates of depression, lower rates of suicide, decreased anxiety, lower rates of alcohol and drug use, and greater marital satisfaction and stability.1 Research has demonstrated that the impact of religion, with regard to well-being, is related to the degree religion is integrated into an individual’s life.2
How might you cultivate meaningful spirituality in your life? Start with what you know, and be open to new possibilities. Be curious on your quest to understand the meaning of life.
Begin with consideration of religious and spiritual practices with which you are familiar, especially if they are comforting and experienced as meaningful to you. Keep in mind, the impact of religion and spirituality on well-being is related to the degree to which it is internalized, intrinsically motivated, and integrated into your life. Having the experience of feeling secure in one’s relationship to God, or the Divine, is also correlated with greater well-being.3 This means, the more personally meaningful spiritual practices and religious beliefs are to you, the more impactful they will be upon your life. Invest and dedicate yourself to spiritual practices that you find meaningful. Develop spiritual disciplines, daily habits, that inspire you toward meaningful living and meaningful relationships with fellow humans and with the Divine.
When religion is imposed, unexamined, and reflects a tenuous relationship with God, or the Divine, it is negatively related to well-being.4 If you find your spirituality to be dry and boring, or if your religious beliefs cause much tension and anxiety, it may not be beneficial to your well-being. This does not necessarily mean you should scrap your current spirituality and/or religious beliefs entirely, but it may be worth considering if there is another way of relating to and understanding your religious faith and/or spiritual practices. Conversations with trusted spiritual leaders and mentors may help you reconsider your approach, and lead to suggestions for new expressions of spirituality that are personally meaningful.
Often, an overlooked benefit of religion is the community in which one practices their religion. Cultivating spirituality can be, in theory, pursued individually, although as one grows in the awareness of the interconnected nature of the cosmos they often seek out stronger connections to community. They tend to realize, we are all in this together. Religion often includes a community of similarly minded believers who emotionally and spiritually support one another. This community can be a great benefit to mental well-being as it reduces the experience of isolation and loneliness.
On your quest for understanding the meaning of life, do not travel alone. Share the joys, and frustrations, with others. And, when/if you figure out the meaning of life, could you let me know? Or, on second thought, maybe not – I’m really enjoying the quest and would not want to take any shortcuts, and I like asking questions. Just ask my wife.
Since 2009, Christopher Grimes, Psy.D., has served as the Director of the Program for Psychology and Religion at St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute. He specializes in the integration of religion, spirituality, and psychotherapy. He completed his Doctor of Psychology at the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in 2004.