“In order to be a virtuous person, it is not enough just to act well—one’s heart behind the action matters too.” Christian Miller
Spirituality is more than a feeling—it is something we live out through our beliefs and behaviors.
Religion traditionally offers ethical beliefs, practices, and communities that support living out moral ideals and virtues. Religions uphold and identify specific virtues like peace, patience, compassion, faith, hope, and love. Whereas spirituality all too often is conceived of as being “personal,” healthy spirituality includes values-oriented and virtuous living that is essential to wholeness and thriving. Healthy spirituality includes a growing awareness and incorporation of evolving ethical ideals, practices, and a supportive community that enables people to grow as moral and virtuous people.
Healthy spirituality upholds virtues and promotes practices that help us develop psychological capacities like empathy, emotion regulation, and self-awareness that are essential to making virtue automatic. To be virtuous requires the ability to “read the room,” so to speak—to understand the needs of others. We are often faced with decisions where we have to choose between two less than ideal options, putting us in situations where our sense of morality and justice are compromised. Making moral decisions requires impulse control and psychological skills like attention, focus, perspective-taking, and moral reasoning. Spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, and service to others all help instill the psychological skills required to make virtue a habit.
Sometimes we actually need rules as we practice living virtuously, and religious communities have provided those. Although religion often gets a bad wrap for being too rule oriented, ethical beliefs and a caring community that exemplifies and supports a journey of living out our evolving ethical ideals is central to thriving.
Particularly, in the current day and age when people are less often part of conventional congregations or organizations that supply ethics or codes (think scouting), people increasingly lack a normative sense of right and wrong. A lack of beliefs and ideals not only can lead to identity confusion, narcissism, and anxiety; but also has social fall out that is evident in lack of trust, respect, a shared sense of purpose, and structural injustices.
Spiritual health is not just an individual construct, but at its cores involves how we perceive and treat one another. Healthy spirituality has a loving stance and upholds the dignity of all persons, strives toward justice, and involves communities of practice that continue to work out ethical ideals and support the development of virtuous habits that support our capacity to thrive with and for others.
UPWARD: How would you describe your moral true north? Can you identify where your beliefs came from?
Essential to spiritual health and thriving is living a moral life and developing virtues like compassion, patience, and hope. Our individual set of ethics guides how we treat others and engage in the world. Cultivating self-awareness allows us to look at our set of ethics through a critically-rounded lens and determine if their original formation matches up with what holds true for us today and allows us to modify them to become more congruent with what we actually believe.
INWARD: What virtues are most important to you? Do you find it difficult to live into those virtues? Do you have practices that help you grow in your ability to live them out?
It is one thing to value virtues: patience, joy, compassion. It is an entirely different endeavor to live them out to the fullest extent of that value. Learning to connect with practices that help us behave in ways that accurately reflect what we believe to be important is essential to a thriving life. It is taxing to go through life feeling like we cannot align our thoughts and actions. As we grow, the two are able to merge and we find ourselves feeling whole, satisfied, and flourishing.
OUTWARD: How do you live out your ideals as actions? How do your actions reflect what you believe?
There are some beliefs we live out innately, to some degree, with little effort. They are some natural rhythms in our life. Attending church, being present with a dear friend, showing patience in a difficult situation, are all moments that reflect values we have developed over time. Other times, we find it very challenging to practice patience, stay in a place of joy, or be thankful, even though we highly value these virtues and agree they are foundational.
Attending to our inconsistencies—the space between what we want to do and what we actually do—is the most natural place to begin a journey of growth, leaning away from any shame or guilt and instead moving towards love and intentionality as we pursue virtuosity.
Moral Elevation (Part 1): The Snowball Effect of Small Inspirations
Dr. Susan Mangan explains the role and benefits of moral elevation in inspiring us to help our communities.
Moral Elevation (Part 2): Practices for Elevating Ourselves and Our World
Postdoctoral Researcher, Dr. Susan Mangan provides research-based activities to help us experience the positive emotion of elevation.
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