Some of us are naturally spiritual people and some are not. Some of us equate spirituality with religion and some do not. Whether we attend church, chant and meditate, participate in drum circles or eschew all things spiritual or religious in nature, one thing that we do share is the tendency to build our lives around our goals. We can also agree that achieving the goals we set for ourselves isn't always easy.
I have written elsewhere about the importance of choosing our goals wisely. Goals that are congruent with our values are much more meaningful and more likely to be attained. But psychological research shows that having goals that are not just meaningful, but spiritually meaningful, boosts our power to achieve.
"Psychological studies have recently begun focusing on better defining and studying spirituality, as opposed to a cloudy mix of religion and spirituality, and the results are quite interesting. It turns out that a sense of spirituality can be good for you, especially when it comes to achieving your goals."
Having spiritually meaningful goals doesn't mean that you need to become religious or set goals like "ending hunger" or "saving the whales." But contemplating your place in the world and the meaning of your life may help guide you in determining the goals that are most meaningful to you.
Spirituality is defined in various ways and, although it can be a facet of religion, it can be separate from religion as well. Spirituality can be thought of as a deep sense of belongingness, connectedness and an openness to the infinite or to authentic inner experience. A spiritual person exhibits certain characteristics such as insight, an awareness of the interconnectedness of things, humility, love and perhaps a sense of some transcendent reality. Spiritual people tend to live meaningfully in a way that responds to their perceptions of the deepest truths of the universe.
Religion, on the other hand, is seen more as a set of beliefs, symbols and practices related to a supernatural or super-empirical force. It can also be defined as a faith community that organizes and guides a person's search for the sacred and attempts to promote morality as defined by that faith. So essentially, religion is more and more seen as an institutionalized set of beliefs about some historical approach to making sense of the world rather than a current attempt to make sense of the world for one's self. Spirituality has more to do with the struggle to find one's own place in the world and less to do with accepting a pre-existing belief system. While some may bristle at these definitions, they are simply what researchers have found to be the most common perceptions of the concepts of religion and spirituality.
So what does this all have to do with setting and reaching goals, you ask? Quite a bit it seems. Here is a summary of some the research findings having to do with spirituality, goals and the relationship between them:
- Individuals who are involved in the pursuit of personally meaningful (read "spiritually-relevant") goals have greater emotional well-being and better physical health than those who lack direction.
- Spiritual beliefs or a person's sense of how they fit into the world provide a vision of what each individual should be striving for. This sense of purpose and meaning helps to guide goal-related choices and ensures that the selection of goals matches a person's values.
- Spiritual people are more likely to see their goals as being spiritually meaningful and this imbues their goals with a heightened importance and a greater sense of expected satisfaction upon attainment.
- People who choose spiritually relevant goals work harder to reach their goals and are more likely to persevere, especially under difficult circumstances.
Goals that are not congruent with a person's value system are unlikely to ever be reached. The current research suggests that goals should not only be consistent with one's basic values but that they should be spiritually relevant as well. The more spiritually relevant our goals, the more meaningful they become and the more likely we will be to work hard enough to reach them.
It is possible for all of us to harness the power of spirituality. You don't have to join a church or temple. You don't have to run off to meditate on a mountaintop. You don't even have to believe in God. You simply need to take some time to think about the world and your place in it. In reading this article, you may have come to the conclusion that you are more spiritual than you realized. You might have recognized that your goals are not in keeping with your spiritual beliefs. Or, you may be thinking that you haven't ever really taken the time to think too hard about any of this and you just wouldn't know where to start. If you fall into this last category, here are some helpful hints for taking a more spiritual approach to your life:
- Spend some time in nature. Try looking at the world through a child's eyes. Think about what you are seeing, about it's complexity, about the magnitude and the wonder of it all. There is nothing like contemplating yourself in the larger context of the natural world to give you a sense of humility and a clearer view of your place in the world.
- Reconnect with your world and the rest of us who live in it. Spend time with people who have a real sense of meaningfulness to their lives. While you will want to find your own path and not simply copy someone else's, it helps to be around people who take a spiritual approach to life. Their sense of awe and wonder and purpose can rub off.
- Ask the big questions and try to find your own answers. What is the meaning of life? How did it all begin? Do we all have a pre-existing purpose, or are meaning and purpose something we create for ourselves? How do we fit into the big picture...in our families, our communities, humanity, nature? What is truly important?
- Do some reading. Anything from the Bible to New Age philosophy, from Taoist writings to Humanist ones...reading can help you to formulate what you believe (and also what you don't).
If you're a very rational, no nonsense type...this may seem like a waste of time, but trust me, time spent wondering about these larger issues is time well-spent. The answers you come up with will guide you and inform your decisions. They will help you to find a sense of purpose and larger meaning. They will enable you to choose goals that are personally meaningful and give you the inspiration and motivation that is needed to bring them to fruition. What could be more practical than that?
Remember, having the answers to the big questions is not really the point. It is the willingness to ask them, to ponder our own thoughts and feelings about them and to attempt to use what we find to live more meaningfully that makes for a spiritual approach to living. Enjoy the journey and good luck with your goals!
Much of the research I have referred to here is discussed in more detail in "A Life Worth Living" by Mihaly Csikszentminalyi. It is a wonderful overview of much of the current thought and research in the field of Positive Psychology. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in this area of psychology and human development.