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Five Practices to Develop Spirituality and Improve Well-Being

Five Practices to Develop Spirituality and Improve Well-Being: image

Five Practices to Develop Spirituality and Improve Well-Being


Author: Julie Starr Parker, PhD

Those of us who value spiritual development know that the path is filled with challenges and benefits. But did you know that positive psychologists identify “spirituality” as a universal character strength? Martin Seligman, the “father of Positive Psychology” and his late colleague, Chris Peterson, developed a strengths model of personality based on cross-cultural research on Virtues and Character Strengths. They found in their research that using one’s character strengths in conscious and new ways has a lasting impact on resilience and subjective well-being.  

Students in my undergraduate Positive Psychology and Psychology of Human Strengths classes are assigned this activity each semester. They write a paper about their experience and reflect on how the activity impacted their sense of well-being.  First, they take the VIA Character Strengths Assessment to identify their top-five strengths. They plan and use at least one of those strengths in a conscious and new way every day for seven days. At the end of the week, they write an essay about how using their strengths impacted their subjective well-being.

From participating in this activity with my students and reading their personal essays, I have compiled a list of ways that one can consciously use the character strength, spirituality, to increase happiness.

Write a Prayer of Forgiveness

Prayer is a simple and well-known practice for connecting with one’s higher power. When combined with a practice of forgiveness, prayer can be particularly potent. Forgiving another for harmful behavior can be a challenge. Recognizing that forgiveness is not the same as condoning a harmful behavior or releasing someone from personal responsibility gives perspective. When one forgives, they release themselves from the weight of anger and resentment. They choose not to stay energetically or psychologically tied to the event that caused them harm.

Start this practice with a minor infraction or irritation before focusing on traumatic events.  Write a prayer that describes how you have been hurt by this person. Attempt to view the event through that person’s eyes. What was their intention when you were hurt? What was their motive? What is the root of their pain? Describe this to your higher power and ask for help seeing the situation from a perspective of truth and empathy. Ask your higher power to take the burden of anger, as you no longer need to carry it.

Practice the “Loving-Kindness” Meditation

The loving-kindness meditation (LKM) is believed to have its origins in ancient India before the time of Buddha. It was popularized by Jon Kabat Zinn in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester. The purpose of this guided meditation is to extend loving and benevolent thoughts to oneself and others. Research on LKM and similar interventions indicate that it can reduce depression, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Praise Dance 

Praise dancing was first mentioned in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible and is a popular form of worship in African American churches. It can be choreographed or freestyle and set to a variety of musical genres including gospel, jazz, contemporary, or even hip-hop. There are no requirements for dance training or dancing in the context of a church service. Anyone can practice praise dancing as an expression of spiritual joy. This is a favorite of many of my African American female students.

Perform Acts of Kindness

Being kind is a behavior that can make a difference for both parties. It is an act of compassion and service that scientific studies show can increase the well-being of the giver. Kindness is one of the 24-character strengths and an expression of spirituality.

Some of the kind acts my students write about include visiting residents of a nursing home, volunteering at the local animal shelter, putting water out for birds, volunteering at the local food bank, buying a meal for the next person in line at the drive-thru, or giving a blanket to a homeless person. Acts of kindness don’t need to take time and money. They can be as simple as a kind word, an authentic compliment, opening the door for the person behind you, taking in an elderly neighbor’s groceries, or making dinner for a loved one. There is no end to ways to be kind.

Practice Gratitude

One of the more lasting ways to improve well-being is simply being grateful. Gratitude is a character strength and a practice for spiritual development. There has been quite a bit of research on the benefits of gratitude.

A favorite gratitude practice among my students is a research-based intervention from Positive Psychology.  At the end of each day, write down three things that went well and why. These need to be specific. For example, you enjoyed a lovely conversation with a neighbor who later brought you some vegetables from her garden. Write it down and consider the reason for it. For example, “The reason this went well today is that I have social intelligence and am generally a kind person. My efforts to actively listen and desire to make others smile are the reasons why this interaction went so well.”  You can also adapt the exercise and make it into a prayer of gratitude.

Capitalize on Character Strengths as Spiritual Practice

Regardless of the mix of strengths that land at the top, using them consciously and in new ways can enhance them. For those who value Spirituality, conscious everyday behaviors that deepen one’s own connection to Source can capitalize on this strength, improve well-being, and increase resilience in the face of change.