As a psychologist, my patients frequently ask me how they they can cure their sadness so that they can feel happier and experience a deeper sense of purpose in their lives. It's a loaded question. I recognize that my answer might not feel like much of a solution, because I often recommend that they reflect upon the things that bring them meaning. Usually, that's not easy. They'll suggest solutions like: "Shouldn't I start exercising? Or maybe I should go on a Yoga retreat. Perhaps I should begin eating a clean diet?" Like many of us, they are uncomfortable with the idea that solutions might be discovered through personal reflection.
But, now, there's research to back up the clinical intervention that I've been using for years. A recent study suggests that pondering the meaning of life may also be a panacea for depression, chronic loneliness and other emotional disorders.
According this new research, people who ask existential, spiritual questions, such as "What happens after we die?" or "Is there a higher power?" are psychologically healthier than those who avoid them.
The study published by the Journal of Contextual and Behavioral Science collected data from 307 American adults who were experiencing conflicts, questions, and tensions about spirituality and religion. These quandaries included questioning the existence of a higher power, feeling angry with god, and feeling abandoned by god.
Results from the study found that people who avoid thinking about these issues have more difficulty managing their emotions and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and emotional angst.
These results help to bolster the fact that it's important to pay attention to our feelings. I'm always amazed how we dance around our emotions and yet we rarely behave this way when we're physically uncomfortable.
For example, if we break a leg, we would never ignore the physical pain or believe that the fracture would heal on its own. Instead, we would pay attention, because the pain communicates that a part of our body need healing.
Our emotional and spiritual lives work in the same way.
While the common belief is that these existential worries only affect religious people, almost everyone grapples with these questions. As a matter of fact, approximately 70 percent of Americans find themselves in a spiritual tug-of-war. For some people, this inner turmoil leads to a form of avoidance known as "experiential avoidance," defined as a tendency to avoid specific thoughts, feelings, memories and emotional experiences even when doing so is harmful in the long run.
The concept of experiential avoidance comes from a theory of behavior change known as "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy" which helps people meet their life goals by encouraging them to figure out how their values align with their personal aspirations.
"Confronting these questions is emotionally uncomfortable, and may trigger guilt, shame, and fear," says Julie Exline, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve and co-author of the study.
Results from the current study even suggest that avoiders are more likely to isolate from those who have different spiritual and religious backgrounds because they find them threatening. They also tend to shy away from the unknown, because it's difficult for them to tolerate ambiguity.
Long-standing research conducted by social psychologists has shown that ambivalence is stressful. People who try to escape painful feelings are more likely to have higher cortisol levels and to suffer from chronic stress. Over time, this stress cocktail takes a toll on their physical and emotional health.
According to spiritual coach and psychotherapist, Matthew Engel, there is a reason people avoid thinking about death and the afterlife. "Mainly, they are trying to protect themselves from feeling emotional pain, but avoiding your feelings doesn't make the underlying issues go away," says Engel.
Engel reminds us that when we avoid our feelings, they may surface as depression or anxiety. He also says that when we ignore thinking about death, we erase an essential aspect of the human life cycle, and this void can prevent us from experiencing deeper meaning in our lives.
These struggles are nothing new. People have been grappling with these questions since the beginning of time. There's even a theory known as existential psychology, which states that emotional distress stems from inner conflict surrounding our existence.
Yet the latest research is one of the first psychological studies to examine what might help or hinder people who face these spiritual and religious struggles.
"Looking at spiritual doubts in an objective way might help people strengthen their tolerance for the unknown, which can help them to accept troubling thoughts," says Exline.
While Exline and her colleagues don't offer specific psychological techniques that can guide someone out of their existential maze, there are tools that can help heal symptoms of anxiety and depression.
One psychological tool is mindfulness, a life skill that can enhance self-acceptance, as well as our tolerance for distressing thoughts and feelings. Rooted in Buddhist meditation, mindfulness entails using your breathing to anchor into the present moment instead of reliving the past or trying to predict the future. Research shows that after practicing mindfulness for a few weeks, people experience physical, psychological and social health benefits.
"Everyone desires to leave their mark on the world in a meaningful way, and it's painful to imagine that we will exit the planet without accomplishing this goal," says Engel.
As it turns out, thinking about death, god, spirituality and the afterlife may help us to live more purposeful lives and strengthen our emotional resiliency during our time on earth.
And now, there's the science to prove it.