Psychologists, philosophers and social scientists have plenty to say about spirituality. Some consider it is closely associated with religion – a set of traditional beliefs, rituals and activities associated with a higher power. Others acknowledge that one can have faith in a higher power whilst not necessarily being aligned with any orthodox religion. Or, spirituality “need not involve adherence to a set of religious tenets, or even belief in a personal God.” Recently, spirituality has become “decoupled” from orthodox religion as people explore a greater variety of philosophies to find personal meaning and psychic growth.
The common features of definitions of spirituality are transcendence – reaching out for something beyond the tangible and finding “meaning” in life. Other concepts linked to spirituality include imagination and creativity, but also generativity. The latter means, literally, the ability to create or reproduce, but more widely to become more productive and do something worthwhile, especially “giving back” to future generations.
It is commonly assumed that spirituality increases with age. This is reflected in the search for enlightenment expressed in many religions. Jung argued that around mid life an individual typically begins to explore the more spiritual aspect of the self as they move closer to death. Some are dissatisfied with what they have accomplished or failed to accomplish within their life times. Ageing is often associated with the attainment of wisdom. Increasing understanding and insight may allow people to see beyond the mundane and also to appreciate the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of reality.
But what do ordinary New Zealanders think? How do they define spirituality? How important is it to them? What has influenced their views as they look forward to later life?
In 2008, as part of the Health, Work and Retirement Study, I put these questions to 50 New Zealanders aged 55 to 70, men and women, Maori and Pakeha.
Firstly, interviewees were asked how important spirituality was to them. There were significant differences by gender; 41% of the women, but only 21% of the men said that spirituality was important or very important to them. How this response can be interpreted depends on individual definition of spirituality, so the next question was – “What does spirituality mean to you?”
Over half of the interviewees mentioned formal religion in relation to spirituality, but only two mentioned religions other than Christianity. Emphasis on Christianity was also implicit in mention of church and church-going. There were more negative comments about this than positive. Only a few felt that spirituality in terms of Christian observances was positive for them. Often, when talking about spirituality and their beliefs, they added “but I don’t go to church”.
Spirituality, for some people, evoked spiritualism, and most felt negative towards mediums, “hearing voices” and reading the future.
Several people included belief in a Supreme Being or power in their definition of spirituality, even though this was not necessarily the Christian God.
Equal numbers of men and women linked spirituality with nature. Their comments are thoughtful and lyrical, talking about sunsets and mountain views, hearing birds singing and admiring the night sky. One person said:
You can’t help but be in awe of creation really, whether it’s a God did it or not.
The most common definitions of spirituality among the interviewees were related to social relationships and personal values. Women were more likely than men to mention the quality of relationships with other people. Several people talked about being kind, looking out and doing the right thing for others. One woman defined spirituality as “Insight into our own nature and into the nature of our relationship with others and with the world we live in.”
We asked whether their feelings about spirituality had changed as they aged. Sixty percent said no, equally men and women. A 65 year old man said that as he got older he was less likely to see things as black and white – he had become more liberal and less dogmatic. A woman of similar age linked change to “slowing down” – she was now more likely to listen to others and accept their views, which might be different to her own. Does this mean that they grew in wisdom?
Some people linked changes in spirituality with reduced religious involvement. But there were a group of respondents, predominantly women, who said that their spirituality had increased in recent years. They talked about it having become “reinforced” and “deepening”.
Sixteen respondents mentioned life experiences which influenced their current perceptions of spirituality. Often this related to family religious practices in their childhood. Several talked about being brought up in the Christian tradition. Some continued in this tradition, but others began to question it as they developed independent personalities in their young adult years.
Life experiences as adults also influenced spiritual positions and practices. Some people were influenced by others, especially marriage partners (all the examples concerned wives).
Much more active changes in spiritual life appear to have been brought about by bereavement. One woman found that the deaths of their children shook the religious beliefs of herself and her husband. Other life events which the respondents felt had influenced their spirituality included marriage break-up and child birth.
Spirituality, in the sense of an awareness of a transcendent dimension, was clearly understood by most of the interviewees, but it was expressed in different ways. Many people do distinguish between spirituality and religion and believe that they can be spiritual without being religious. Full commitment to organised religion was rare among the people we interviewed (and when it did occur mainly involved women), although many had been brought up to it.
There were clear differences by gender. The women were far more likely than the men to say that spirituality was important to them and to have some commitment to organised religion. All the interviewees who were seeking greater satisfaction with their spiritual lives were women. Does this contribute to a conclusion that women, overall, may be more spiritual than men?
While none of the respondents articulated an overt search for “the meaning of life”, many were actively seeking a better understanding of intangible factors in their lives. A few were using traditional religion or meditation. More were taking an introspective approach and working things out for themselves. This is perhaps the spiritual equivalent of the traditional New Zealand “number eight fencing wire” approach.