How Your Beliefs Connect to Your Health

Can having a spiritual life actually improve your outcome?

Meet Leonard and Rochelle, two hypothetical people. Either because of traditional religious beliefs or a less defined sense of “something more,” Leonard believes that life in general, and his in particular, has meaning. Rochelle, on the other hand, likes the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” and she answers its eponymous question with a resigned yes. Science tells us that, all other factors being equal, Leonard has superior odds for staying healthy and for dealing adeptly with life’s inevitable curveballs. Why? The research isn’t definitive yet, but it does show that “the meaning factor” is real, that it improves people’s lives and, in many cases, their health.

“Studies show over and over again that a connection to something transcendent is very helpful in stress relief,” says Tanya Edwards, M.D., MEd., of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “And patients who have been given a diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening, or at least life-changing, condition do much better when they have this connection. It doesn’t have to be religious necessarily, as long as it gives meaning to life and to the individual’s place on earth. Then they can make some sense of the disease process.”

Meaning 101

The key to developing a spiritual life that provides this kind of meaning, and that works in the here and now, is to start with your own belief system. If you’re a born-again Christian, a devout Catholic or a religious Jew, you already have access to prayers, devotions, rituals and reading materials that stir something deep within you. If, conversely, you no longer feel nourished by your childhood religion, or you were raised without one, you still have a worldview. A worldview, by definition, is going to entertain some big-picture issues.

For a bit of enlightenment on what spiritual paths or practices might be of interest to you, take a look at the fascinating, in-depth “Belief-O-Matic” quiz on It’s a thoughtful exploration of how your personal beliefs reflect the tenets of myriad philosophical systems, just about all the world’s religions and many denominations within them. Your “score” will give you a 1-to-20 lineup of how your way of seeing things stacks up against these various teachings. If you find, for example, that you already think like a Buddhist, looking into Buddhist meditation might be just what the doctor ordered.

“Choose something that goes well with your personal belief system,“ Dr. Edwards says. “Otherwise you’ll create unnecessary stress. I always ask patients first what their source of spiritual support is. I go where they are and enable them to get more of a stronghold based on their belief system.” This means that the best practice for you is the one that fits the person you are.

For example, the bulk of peer-reviewed scientific studies on how spiritual practice affects human health have looked at meditation—usually an Eastern style, such as Transcendental Meditation (a Hindu derivative) or Vipassana Meditation (a Buddhist form). Your spiritual health prescription, however, may be Bible study, saying the rosary or learning a relaxation technique that has no ecclesiastical overtones but that puts you in the same fully present, fully focused state as someone sitting in meditation or kneeling at prayer.

Seeing the Divine in One Another

Private contemplation is good for you, but so is singing in the choir or volunteering at a soup kitchen. “Talking to others who share your beliefs can be comforting and helpful,” Dr. Edwards says. “In Buddhism, they call it sangha, spiritual community. This is also what you get in a support group or in church.”

Here are some ways to deepen your contact with others who can nurture your spirit:

  • Engage in some spiritual pursuit as a family. Mealtime grace, bedtime prayers and reading aloud from scripture or other uplifting books can do a lot for togetherness, even after the kids are grown and gone.
  • Have a “prayer partner” or “vision partner.” This is someone you speak with briefly every day to pray with and for each other, or to share the actions you’ll take to bring your vision—for healing, peace of mind, the accomplishment of a goal—into being.
  • Join a small group within a large one. If you’re part of a big church or synagogue, sign up for a committee or take a class so you’ll get to know people and feel you truly belong.
  • Start and host your own group. This could be a spiritual book club, a community service group or a mastermind circle that supports and encourages every member’s dreams. Invite friends to join, or reach out with signs at the natural food store, health club and yoga studio.
  • Find like-minded friends. They’re out there! Find them at bookstore author events, lectures and classes, retreats and seminars.

While research on meditation mainly focuses on what happens neurochemically and neurologically in the brain, “strong evidence now also supports that people who are engaged socially, as well as personally, in spiritual practice are healthier,” says Patrick Swift, PhD., a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine and the author of One Mountain, Many Paths. “The reason for that is open to debate, but so what?” Try This! Keep a journal—on paper, with a pen. It’s a great way to unearth the wisdom inside you and, day by day, sentence by sentence, discover more meaning in your life.

Try This! Keep a journal—on paper, with a pen. It’s a great way to unearth the wisdom inside you and, day by day, sentence by sentence, discover more meaning in your life.

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