Feeling Down? Spirituality Can Boost Your Mood

woman meditates in city
Meditation and other spiritual activities can lift a person's mood, scientists report Aug. 1, 2012. (Image credit: Andrei Zarubaika, Shutterstock)

In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama got himself into trouble by saying "bitter" voters "cling to guns or religion" in response to hard times. Obama later apologized and recanted the statement, but new research suggests he may not have been entirely wrong.

People do turn to spirituality after a bad day, according to a study published online Aug. 1 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. And good news for spiritual folks, it works.

"We find that having a really spiritual day, committing to a power higher than yourself, carefully considering a purpose larger than yourself, it ends up leading to a lot of well-being," said study researcher Todd Kashdan, a psychologist at George Mason University in Virginia. "We find profound levels of meaning in life, greater positive emotions, less negative emotions, higher self-esteem."

Spirituality and happiness

A number of studies have found links between spirituality and happiness. A sense of spirituality, defined as the search for the sacred to differentiate it from organized religion, has even been linked to young women having more sex, perhaps because they feel a greater sense of interconnectedness and intimacy with others.

But most researchers have looked at the link between spirituality in a broad sense, with surveys that ask people about their spirituality in general. Kashdan and his colleagues wanted a day-to-day view. So they asked 87 college students to fill out daily online diaries about their emotions, their spiritual feelings and their self-esteem. They then looked at how spirituality matched up with daily emotional ups and downs.

The participants were a mix of religions, with 34 percent identifying as Catholic, 18 percent as Protestants, and the rest a mix of atheists, Buddhists, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, Muslims and other faiths.

The diary analysis first found that daily spirituality is associated with a boost in self-esteem and positive mood. The reason, Kashdan told LiveScience, seems to be that spirituality gives people a sense of meaning in life. People's life meaning statistically explained 100 percent of spirituality's positive effect on mood, and 93 percent of the self-esteem boost. [8 Ways Religion Impacts your Life]

Sad today, spiritual tomorrow

For people who are high in spirituality, a bad day was linked to an increase in spiritual behavior, such as meditation or prayer, the next. A good day was associated with fewer spiritual behaviors.

"If today you're in a funk … tomorrow you're much more likely to be spiritually inclined, to engage in spiritual practices and double down on your focus on things that transcend humanity," Kashdan said.

In turn, a spiritual day today led to a happier tomorrow, with people reporting greater meaning in life the day after they'd engaged in spiritual practices.

The same was not true for non-spiritual people, who became even less likely to engage in spiritual practices after a bad day.

The findings highlight how "clinging" to religion shouldn't necessarily be seen in a negative light, Kashdan said.

"Happiness is fleeting, but profound meaning is something like a stable architecture you can work with," Kashdan said. "If I know I have this profound meaning, it sticks with me despite bad things happening."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.