What is spirituality?
A Research-Based Approach
Is spirituality the same as religion? Or the opposite? Does it involve God? Or crystals, yoga, and Eastern Religions? Spirituality can be all or none of these depending on the person, which can make it difficult to define.
In response, I dedicated my academic career to developing a research-based definition of spirituality. It focuses on the shared human experience of Connectedness–the feeling of connection to something greater.
I began this work at the University of British Columbia and continued to refine the definition at Harvard Divinity School.
The most current definition goes as follows:
“Spirituality is a feeling of connection to something greater, or simply, Connectedness, which is inherently desired and experienced by cultivating a relationship with oneself, one’s community, one’s environment, and one’s orientation with the transcendent” (Sarah E. K. Lentz, 2018).
to break it down:
Spirituality = Connectedness with a capital “C”
Connectedness is inherently desired (humans naturally long for Connectedness)
…and experienced (felt/encountered)
…by cultivating (making an active effort to establish and maintain)
…four types of relationships:
- Yourself (who you are as a person and/or spirit)
- Your community (family, friends, the human race)
- Your environment (nature, awe-inspiring architecture, the feeling of home)
- Your orientation with the transcendent (God, love, “something greater,” karma)
My research-based definition is a reminder that spirituality is a fundamental part of the human experience. Whether or not we are religious, humans have spiritual needs just like we have physical and emotional needs, and we fulfill these spiritual needs through cultivating the four relationships outlined above.
“In response to my definition over the years, people have said, “Wait, I don’t have to believe in God to be spiritual?” or “I never knew I was spiritual!” These questions bring me so much joy, not because I’m trying to convert people (believe in God, don’t believe in God, I don’t judge) but because I’ve learned that when we embrace the idea that we have spiritual needs that require attention just like we have emotional and physical needs, we open opportunities to lead more fulfilling and peaceful lives.”
– Sarah E. K. Lentz
If you want to learn more
Why is this definition important?
No matter our religious affiliation—or resistance to religion—humans exhibit spiritual needs just like we have physical and emotional needs. Some of us fulfill these spiritual needs through traditional religions, and some of us fulfill our spiritual needs—often without realizing it—through nontraditional routes like family, sports, and/or music.
The problem is, not all of us are fulfilling our spiritual needs. In response, my definition of spirituality provides a framework for improving spiritual health. In addition, the definition’s broad focus on the human experience provides common language for discussing spirituality in public spaces where religion is not always a welcome topic. My hope is that someday my definition will be used in healthcare, education, and perhaps even politics to bridge divides and collectively increase spiritual well-being.
Where does religion fit in?
Spirituality is often associated with religion. For instance, a Christian may say they are deeply spiritual and mean this fully within the context of their religious life; in contrast, there are a growing number of individuals who say they are “spiritual but not religious” as a way of distancing themselves from religion. To make room for a variety of perspectives (both religious and non-religious), it’s useful to pair my definition of spirituality with the following definition of religion:
Spirituality is a feeling of connection to something greater, or simply, Connectedness, which is inherently desired and experienced by cultivating a relationship with oneself, one’s community, one’s environment, and one’s orientation with the transcendent.
Correspondingly, religion is a culturally-, historically-, and/or communally-situated system for responding to the inherent human desire for Connectedness and typically includes established doctrine, practices, and traditions, many of which cultivate Connectedness.
In other words, humans have an inherent desire for spirituality/ Connectedness, and it is often through religion that people cultivate this Connectedness. That said, there are also many ways to cultivate Connectedness outside of religion. Check out the Four Connectedness Relationships and the Research-Based Spiritual Health Recipes to learn more.
If you want to learn EVEN more
You can read about the four Connectedness relationships, try filling out the Connectedness Evaluation, read about research-based spiritual health recipes, follow Science of Connectedness on Instagram, sign up for email updates, or send Sarah E. K. Lentz a message.
In addition, for those interested in how these ideas were formed, check out the ancestry of ideas.
Published versions of this definition:
Koss, Sarah E. “Redefining Spirituality and Religion: Historical, Personal, and Contemporary Influences.” Master of Divinity Thesis, Harvard Divinity School, May 2018.
Koss, Sarah E., and Mark D. Holder. “Toward a Global Understanding of Spirituality and Religiosity: Definitions, Assessments, and Benefits.” Spirituality: Global Practices, Societal Attitudes and Effects on Health. (2015): 203-230.