I was at a gala evening not long ago, seated next to a prominent scientist, a lovely woman who is working on a breakthrough treatment. She’d heard my talk earlier that day about my Power of Eight® work, and was very accepting and open-minded, but admitted, in her own words, that she was ‘spiritually autistic.’
Try as she might, she just couldn’t embrace a belief in a higher power.
That admission saddened me no end, not only because I believe that spirituality gives meaning to people’s lives, but also that it appears to be a necessary ingredient for a long, healthy and happy life.
In the largest and most rigorous study to date examining the role of spirituality in health, Harvard researchers examined 371 studies representing the highest quality evidence on spirituality and health, and concluded that spirituality was one of the major keys to rude good health.
They strongly recommended that attention to spiritual beliefs and practice should be a ‘vital part of whole-person care.’
By spirituality, they were referring to participating in a spiritual community, such as attendance in a religious service. Those who did lived longer and healthier lives, with less depression and suicide or substance abuse.
The researchers even discovered that spiritual practice influenced a patient’s quality of life.
Most interesting was the body of researchers themselves, a 27-member panel of experts in medicine, public health care and spirituality, including people of a variety of faiths, those who were spiritual but not strictly religious, and a few outright atheists thrown in for good measure.
The Harvard research bolsters earlier research showing that those who regularly assemble in churches to pray together have been shown to have lower blood pressure, enjoy far stronger immune systems, spend far fewer days in the hospital, and are a third less likely to die, even when all other factors are controlled for.
Scientists now believe that those who are now age 20 who never go to church can expect to live seven years less than those who attend more than once a week.
It isn’t just someone’s religious fervor or assembling as a community; the collective spiritual practice appears to be as important as the group effect.
One study found that those living in a religious kibbutz and praying together had about half the mortality rate of those in a nonreligious kibbutz. Those who attend church frequently have stronger immune systems than those who attend less frequently, as measured by lower plasma interleukin-t (IL-6) levels. An elevated IL level is a marker of one of the degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, or AIDS.
And this type of collective spiritual practice even protects us in hard times. A sampling of Americans in the lowest income bracket suffered from virtually no stress about their financial circumstances, so long as they had two means of support: a strong spiritual connection and a strong spiritual community.
Even when engaged in a daily struggle to survive, they were able to manage as long as they didn’t do so alone.
All of which suggests that religious belief on its own is strengthening, but not as powerful, it seems, as the group experience of prayer.
Perhaps the most compelling piece of research of all about the transformational effects of spiritual service has been carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who wanted to examine the difference in likely future health between healthy people who live a fulfilling life of pleasure – what we’d normally define as the good life – compared to those who live a life of purpose or meaning.
The researchers examined the gene expressions and psychological states of eighty healthy volunteers in both groups. Although the members of the two groups had many emotional similarities and all claimed to be highly content and not depressed, their gene expression profile couldn’t have been more divergent.
Among the pleasure seekers, the psychologists were amazed to discover high levels of inflammation, considered a marker for degenerative illnesses, and lower levels of gene expression involved in antibody synthesis, the body’s response to outside attack.
If you hadn’t known their histories, you would have concluded that these were the gene profiles of people exposed to a great deal of adversity or in the midst of difficult life crises: a low socioeconomic status, social isolation, diagnosis with a life-threatening disease, a recent bereavement.
These people were all perfect candidates for a heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, even cancer. In a few years, they would be dropping like flies.
Those whose lives were not as affluent or stress-free but were purposeful and filled with meaning, on the other hand, had low inflammatory markers and a down regulation of stress-related gene expression, both indicative of rude good health.
If you have to choose one path over the other, the researchers concluded, choosing a life of meaning over one just chasing pleasure is undeniably better for your health.
This all sounds counterintuitive to us in the West, with our emphasis on material success at any cost, but it has to do with what exactly constitute ‘meaning’ in our lives.
A spiritual belief – a sense of something greater than ourselves – gives our life a route to ‘ultimate meaning, purpose, connection, value or transcendence,’ say the Harvard scientists which is bolstered by belonging to a community of others who have your back.
All of which suggests that if you want to live to 100, get yourself a Power of Eight® group. Then make sure to ‘pray’ together without ceasing.
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