Cultivating Everyday Spiritual Experiences
As a conscientious individual who likes routine (for more information about why I chose the word "conscientious," see my previous post on conscientiousness and longevity), it may not be surprising that I pray before breakfast each morning. Sometimes it takes less than a minute, while other times I need upwards of five or ten minutes to express all that I want to say. Regardless, this integral part of my day seems to anchor me to goodness and gratitude.
That's why I was not surprised when I read about a recent study published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences titled, "Coping with Daily Stress: Differential Role of Spiritual Experience on Daily Positive and Negative Affect." In the study, authors Whitehead and Bergeman from the University of Notre Dame had 244 older adults complete daily assessments that explored their everyday spiritual experiences, perceived stress levels, and range of affect (a clinical term for emotion).
The general idea was not new, as past research already suggests that a spiritual life acts as a kind of buffer against stressful life events. What set this study apart was its focus on day-to-day experiences and how they moderate smaller, yet more common, daily stressors and the feelings that accompany them.
Their findings were two-fold. First, they found support for the idea that everyday spiritual experiences act as a protective buffer against perceived stress so that negative affect is reduced. In other words, without the everyday spiritual experiences, those stressful circumstances might lead to negative emotions.
But the researchers also found some interesting (and may I say, uplifting) additional evidence. Their results indicated that everyday spiritual experiences boost positive emotions - whether or not stress is present. Put another way, everyday spiritual experiences directly affected the participants' feelings in a positive way, even when stress was missing from the equation.
This news heartens me. So often, we turn to spiritual practices in a reactive way. Something is wrong, so we pray for help, or meditate on it, or seek counsel from a spiritual guide. But spiritual experiences can also be proactive. We can pray simply because we are thankful, we can meditate because we are nourished by the centering of ourselves in mindfulness, and we can talk to a spiritual elder in order to enrich our own understanding of our spiritual beliefs.
I encourage you to identify your everyday spiritual experiences. Personally, I pray at least once a day, but usually more. I also read scripture, attend services, and volunteer at my church in ways that best use my skills to serve others. But for you, your spiritual experiences may consist of walks in nature, reading different texts, performing ceremonies and rituals, or journaling about mystic experiences. Whatever those everyday experiences are, note them and treasure them.
There's nothing wrong with practicing spiritual experiences in a reactive way during difficult times; in fact, having these tools readily at hand can create the buffer identified in the study described above. Just make sure to be proactive about your spirituality too. Nourish your spirit when things are going well just as often as when they are not. The dividends could brighten your feelings, usher in peace, and improve your wellness for many days ahead.
Whitehead, B. R., & Bergeman, C. S. (2012). Coping with daily stress: Differential role of spiritual experience on daily positive and negative affect. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67(4), 456-459.