The Role of Spirituality in Mental Well-Being

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Monday, January 30, 2023
By Robert Woodcock
Photo by iStock/tommaso79
As COVID-19 leaves an “anxiety pandemic” in its wake, people can turn to spiritual practices to learn to manage stress. Business schools can help.
  • While workers and students are experiencing high levels of post-COVID anxiety, they can turn to spiritual practices to improve their mental well-being and physical health.
  • Individuals can reduce stress and experience positive benefits by following three paths: developing an inner life, embracing a calling, and creating a community.
  • In some cultures, spiritual practices can influence business strategies and lead to healthier employees and organizations.

Today’s workers are more anxious, alone, and isolated than ever. According to the 2022 “Work Habits Study,” 40 percent of U.S. adult workers are experiencing more depression and anxiety, 30 percent are lonelier, and 52 percent are spending more time on their devices than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research suggests that one way individuals might achieve a state of positive well-being is to embrace spirituality. That is, they can explore a dimension of reality that is beyond their limited experience and consider the ways in which the world works on a deeper plane of existence.

In a landmark 2020 study in Health Psychology, Polish researchers surveyed 595 college students from six different universities whose study programs either focused on the human body or the human mind and spirit. Results showed that spirituality not only improved students’ psychological well-being, but also conferred health benefits on them.

It seems that nonsecular research is catching up with what world religions and some faith-based institutions have experienced and known for a long time: Spirituality is beneficial for both individuals and society.

Spirituality in the Business School

Spirituality has long been part of the approach to instruction and campus life at Pepperdine University, a Los Angeles institution that was founded on Christian principles. At the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, our mission calls for transformational learning, including spiritual formation. We are steeped in spiritual traditions such as Sabbath rest and fellowship gatherings.

Although based on Christianity, the university has a deep regard for other world religions in which spirituality is present and practiced. We encourage our large population of global students to explore the spiritual impulse to transcend the mind’s limited perception of self and reality by engaging in activities that have the power to incite inner transformation.

Graduate business schools should consider infusing spirituality into their programs to enhance their students’ well-being and prepare them to handle stress at work.

For instance, for Hindus, spirituality is seeking the divine through tolerance, oneness, and universal consciousness. In Islam, the three spiritual rites are purification, remembrance, and prayer. For many Native American religions, place, land, and nature are important.

We believe that other graduate business schools should consider infusing spirituality into their own programs as a way to enhance their students’ well-being. Of course, many schools already offer wellness weeks and mental health counseling aimed at addressing the “anxiety pandemic.” But we believe initiatives that develop spirituality could do even more to prepare students to handle stress as they enter the workforce.

Three Paths for Spiritual Growth

In my role as spiritual life officer at Pepperdine Graziadio, I have seen that there are universal spiritual paths all MBA students can pursue to manage anxiety and establish greater well-being. In a special issue of The Leadership Quarterly edited by Louis “Jody” Fry, three paths receive particular attention:

Inner life. According to consulting firm Creativity At Work, those who have rich inner lives are in touch with their true selves and the vast terrain of their hopes, dreams, thoughts, emotions, instincts, and intuition. MBA programs that encourage exploration of a rich inner life prepare students to be secure and achieve higher-level leadership. For example, meditation and prayer can provide students with a sense of value and connection to a higher being or larger life scheme. Spiritual practices like yoga and meditation also can help students develop their inner lives.

At Pepperdine Graziadio, students engage in online and in-person reflective meditation exercises focused on sacred Christian texts such as the Book of Psalms, creeds, and confessions. Students also are encouraged to consider narratives such as poetry and art. These traditions can encourage perspective, bring about inner peace, and reduce anxiety.

For example, the prayerful reflection of The Daily Examen, an ancient practice of the Jesuit faith, encourages participants to quiet inner talk and consider the events of the day in order to detect the presence and direction of God. Through these exercises, students experience feelings such as gratefulness and belonging that build a sturdy inner life. From there, students are better able to reframe their attitudes and make changes to positively impact their mental health.

MBA programs are optimal proving grounds where aspiring professionals can discover the gifts and strengths that will help them achieve meaning and joy.

Calling. Many religions teach that the concept of calling goes deeper than any one aspect of life. It is an urge, desire, and passion that fuels an overall sense of purpose. MBA programs are optimal proving grounds where aspiring professionals can discover the gifts and strengths that will help them achieve meaning and joy. MBA programs can push students outside their comfort zones and inspire new thinking. Together, these experiences help students set their internal compasses toward their true callings.

At Pepperdine Graziadio, I teach Strength-Based Leadership, a required but ungraded course in the Master of Leadership program. In this workshop, students complete the Clifton Strength Assessment to identify their top five strengths out of 34 possibilities. With this baseline, students can reflect on how their strengths—such as self-assurance, empathy, and focus—can direct their time, purpose, and path. Simply having a terminology to identify their strengths helps them think about how they were created and where the spirit of God might be directing them. Thus, their mindsets shift to the big-picture life plan, which quiets everyday stress.

Community. MBA programs should promote cooperation and friendship, the foundation of community. MBA programs also can encourage students to dedicate themselves to noble values such as kindness and respect that help foster a positive community. Especially in times of adversity, having a community of supportive, caring peers can help MBA students respond, adapt, and recover.

For instance, the custom of sharing a meal, breaking bread, and giving thanks naturally invites the spiritual practices of hospitality, kindness, and generosity. At Pepperdine Graziadio, we host a weekly meal for business students and law students at the home of the dean of the law school. During these meals, students hear from guest speakers and consider spiritual aspects in their daily lives and future business practices. Through this shared time, students do more than simply eat together—they also develop meaningful, comforting connections and a respect for healthy cooperation.

Spirituality and Mental Health

Well beyond the campus borders, the practice of spirituality can have broad benefits for society at large. For instance, there is some evidence that it can help address prolific mental health concerns that exist on a global level. According to a 2021 report in the medical journal The Lancet, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment that exacerbates many determinants of poor mental health, particularly anxiety disorders. The predominant spiritual traditions in many countries’ cultures are well-positioned to address this issue.

In Japan, for example, business culture is often influenced by religion. Core spiritual practices of Shintoism focus on respecting nature and establishing a balance where both humans and kami (spirits) coexist in their proper places. For many African cultures, the past ancestor spiritual traditions help individuals find healing and peace of mind. Traditional ceremonies of Native American religions encourage the spiritual and real world to seamlessly intersect. In such ways, spiritual cultures around the world can impact the mental health of those who practice their traditions.

There is some evidence that the practice of spirituality can help address prolific mental health concerns that exist on a global level.

The practice of mindfulness, which is growing in popularity, also has positive correlations to spirituality. According to researchers and practitioners, there are mental health benefits to focusing awareness on the current moment and eliminating concerns that come from outside the present.

At Pepperdine Graziadio, Darren Good, an associate professor of applied behavioral science, is a mindfulness scholar who teaches in the Master of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) program. He focuses on how mindfulness practices can be used in both individual and organizational contexts.

Within the MSOD, one specific program explores the spiritual dimension of leadership and organizational behavior as summarized by the acronym SPINE (Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, iNtuitive, and Emotional). This program exposes students to higher-consciousness mindfulness practices and encourages graduates to adopt these practices as a way to influence a company’s entire culture.

Benefits for a Lifetime

Business school programs that focus on mental health are more important now than ever, because the anxiety pandemic is still having widespread effects in the workplace. According to the most recent data available, 13.2 percent of adults aged 18 and over used antidepressant medications in the past 30 days. Antidepressant use was higher for adults with at least some college education (14.3 percent) than it was for those with a high school education (11.5 percent) or less (11.4 percent). Making a finer point, these findings were based on data from 2015 through 2018—before the COVID pandemic.

Flash forward to present day, and mental health remains an issue of crisis proportions. Those suffering anxiety display behavior such as uncontrollable worry, irritability, exhaustion, sleeplessness, panic attacks, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. The net impact of anxiety is so far-reaching that, in September 2022, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended anxiety screening in primary care even for adults without symptoms.

Spirituality is not a replacement for a comprehensive diagnosis and treatment plan for severe anxiety. However, the practices and mindsets associated with spirituality can mitigate the effects of distressed mental health. When business students learn these practices, they will experience benefits that far outlast their MBA experiences and that support them professionally and personally throughout their lifetimes.

Robert Woodcock
Spiritual Life Officer, Graziadio Business School, Pepperdine University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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