Spirituality, Not Organized Religion, May Be The Key To Finding Meaning In Life

Psychologist Hansong Zhang discusses his illuminating new research on nonreligious spirituality.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 9, 2021

A new paper appearing in the academic journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice suggests that there are fewer differences between people who are part of an organized religion versus those who practice spirituality in their own way than might be expected — at least from a psychological standpoint. For instance, both groups show elevated emotional well-being compared to nonreligious individuals.

I recently spoke with Hansong Zhang, a Doctoral Candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of North Texas and lead author of the research, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of nonreligious spirituality and mental health and what did you find?

America's religious and spiritual landscape has shifted quite a bit in the past few decades, especially with more deconversions happening in traditionally religious groups, and more people being involved in nonreligious spirituality. But the current research has still largely focused on traditional religious individuals. Given the important mental health implications of religion and spirituality, I think it is important to examine the mental health impact of nonreligious spirituality involvement.

We found that people who practiced nonreligious spirituality showed very few differences in mental health, emotional well-being, and meaning in life compared to people who practiced traditional religion. At the same time, nonreligious spirituality involvement was associated with both positive (e.g., high emotional well-being, meaning in life) and negative (e.g., higher depression) outcomes.

Can you briefly describe the difference between spirituality and nonreligious spirituality?

There are a lot of similarities (e.g., both involve a connection with whatever the person considers sacred). But the key feature that distinguishes nonreligious spirituality from traditional religion spirituality is its lack of organizational structure. Nonreligious spirituality is generally more individually practiced and less organized like traditional religious groups.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone who is looking to improve their mental health and well-being?

I think learning more about the impact of nonreligious spirituality can inform mental health professionals to better work with this group. The most important takeaway, though, is that the mental health benefits of engaging in nonreligious spirituality were similar to traditional religion. Sometimes people can have negative stereotypes toward people who practice nonreligious spirituality (e.g., thinking they are in a cult). I hope the findings from this study can help reduce stereotypes toward religious minority members and help create a more accepting environment.

What are the downsides, if any, to nonreligious spirituality?

We found that nonreligious spirituality practices were positively associated with delusional ideation in participants. For example, practicing certain nonreligious spirituality rituals, including consulting Tarot cards or horoscopes, may be an indicator of one's belief in the paranormal. Nonreligious spirituality experiences were also linked to higher levels of depression, perhaps due to the disorienting and concerning nature of experiencing phenomenon that are hard to comprehend.

What other personality traits are related to nonreligious spirituality?

Based on a wide variety of nonreligious spirituality beliefs and practices, it seems like nonreligious spirituality individuals experience higher levels of openness to experience, which is consistent with past research.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on religion, spirituality, and happiness?

The findings from my research suggest that, at least psychologically speaking, nonreligious spirituality and traditionally religious participants may be more similar than different. Therefore, nonreligious spirituality individuals are likely to experience similar benefits to mental health and well-being as traditionally religious participants.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve psychological well-being?

I think learning the background information and experiences of nonreligious spirituality individuals may help counselors conceptualize the client more effectively and design treatment plans more accurately, as well as promote empathy and understanding of clients who practice nonreligious spirituality.