Since I’ve been teaching in the Public & Community Health Department at Utah Valley University, one of the first discussions I have with my classes each semester is to define the word “health.”
Students typically come up with a definition along the lines of “the state of the mind and body.” As they continue the discussion and dig deeper, they add in other dimensions of health, such as social and emotional health. Health is multidimensional and includes social, environmental, emotional and spiritual health in addition to physical and mental health.
After this discussion, I pose a question to my classes: Which area of health do you think is most important? The majority of students argue that physical or mental health is the most important. They share some valid points, but when I explain to them that spiritual health is the most important to our wellbeing, they are often surprised, as it is often the area of health they feel is least important.
The term “spiritual health” can be deceiving. When we hear the word “spiritual” we often think of being part of an organized religion or participating in spiritual practices. Although this can be a part of it, spiritual health is more about finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life. It’s for that reason that it is the most important dimension of health. Without purpose, what do the other areas of health matter?
Over the last two months with social distancing and being in quarantine, many people have had to adjust to a new “normal.” This new normal may have included homeschooling children, working from home, losing a job, not seeing friends or family members, financial hardships, caring for sick family members, etc.
As part of my new normal, I transitioned to teaching online classes. We had many online class discussions about various topics. In one particular discussion, we discussed lessons we had learned while being in quarantine.
One student commented that being in quarantine had forced her to question fundamental areas in her life, including what her purpose was. Many students related to her situation and agreed that this quarantine had forced them to stop and think about what was most important in their lives and what truly gave it meaning.
For example, one student described how he had lost his job and he now had to find another way to feel like he was contributing to the world. Going to work each day and interacting with others was a major part of what gave his life meaning. He discussed how he felt anxious, stressed, and even depressed as he adjusted to his new normal and finding that sense of purpose in other ways.
Is there a correlation between spiritual health and mental and physical health conditions?
In one study conducted by Schaefer, Morozink, vanReekum, Lapate, Norris, Ryff, & Davidson (2013), participants with higher levels of purpose in life, personal growth, and positive relations were linked to improved health, including lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower weight, and higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
There were positive mental health correlations as well. Participants with a greater sense of purpose exhibited reduced rates of depression, better cognition, reduced risk of cognitive impairment, and a slower rate of cognitive decline. Those who reported the highest rates of purpose in life were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s Disease. Greater purpose in life, overall, was found to be associated with a reduced risk of death.
These findings suggest that the ability to find meaning and purpose in life is crucial to our mental and physical health. So, what can we do, particularly now, in the midst of a pandemic, when we may be in the process of finding a new normal and reevaluating our life’s purpose and meaning?
In an article by Harvard University (2018), Fred Silverstone, a licensed mental health counselor, recommends the following:
1. Change your attitude
Instead of focusing on what defined you before, look at who you are now, where your interests lie, and where you may find the greatest sense of accomplishment.
2. Embrace acceptance
Give yourself permission to have feelings of anger, loss, anxiety or fear without judging yourself. This will help you become more at ease with you who are now so you can approach your new purpose in life with greater motivation and confidence.
3. Be flexible
Don’t try to force something that is no longer a good fit, no matter how it makes you feel. Don’t give up if your chosen path is not clear. You may have to try several times before you find the right one.
In conclusion, if you are feeling lost, try some of the techniques mentioned above as you work towards adding greater purpose and meaning into your life. Take it one day at a time.
Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who wrote of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote: “Man is not destroyed by suffering; he is destroyed by suffering without meaning.”