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What does spirituality mean to you?: Students share

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What is spirituality, anyway? For many, it’s about belief in God, but it doesn’t have to be. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, you also linked spirituality with mindfulness, nature, taking care of yourself, the arts, close relationships, and support groups.

However we define spirituality, it is associated with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, a supportive community, and resources for coping with stress. That’s why researchers are exploring the ways that spiritual belief and practice can help build resilience—our capacity to negotiate life’s changes and obstacles. For example, a 2013 analysis of multiple studies highlighted the therapeutic value of prayer and meditation in improving well-being and relieving anxiety, stress, and depression.

We asked what spirituality means to you and how it strengthens your resilience in college.

Nurture a positive view of yourself

“Rewriting my view of the past: Shame and depression are rewritten into an acceptance of loss and pain and my own humanity in experiencing them.”
—John K., second-year graduate student, Michigan Technological University

Build social connections

“I have become immersed in the Jewish community on campus, which has made the university smaller and has become a space in which I have found a lot of cool, like-minded people.”
—Tova W., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Keep things in perspective

“Narcotics Anonymous meetings: Drawing strength from my Higher Power and working the 12 steps helps put myself and my life into better perspective and makes things easier to achieve.”
—Casey P., second-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage

Recover from setbacks

“If I fail a test, I realize that this isn’t the end of the world and God is probably just trying to teach me something or reorient me.”
—Nicole W., second-year undergraduate, University of California, San Diego

Move toward your goals

“Lao Tzu [the founder of Taoism] once said, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ That’s exactly that I’m doing, I’m just taking college day by day.”
—Kylie S., third-year student, College of the Desert, California

Handle uncertainty and change

“I have no control over the majority of events in my life. With meditation and yoga I have learned control over my mind and body, which is a vast improvement over the feeling of helplessness that I would [previously] encounter daily.”
—Shelby Y., second-year undergraduate, Metropolitan State University, Denver

Grow intellectually

“I like the ideas behind Buddhism, which I believe are in line with education. I like to imagine that my soul is growing with each chapter I read and that each wrinkle I add is another step toward enlightenment.”
—Ryan R., second-year student, Moorpark College, California

Take care of yourself

“I take one day to be with nature each week. It recharges me and gives me a weekly reward to motivate me to do my work.”
—Anastasia Z., 2015 graduate, Metropolitan State University, Denver

Students’ stories

What is spirituality?

What is spirituality about?

“I derive the equivalent of ‘spiritual experience’ from natural beauty, from cosmology, from great works of art, and from feeding my senses in general.”
—Aaron F., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“Going to Al-Anon meetings to talk about things with others is helpful when I feel a bit lost.”
—Rachel V., third-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta

“My spirituality stems from being a kind human being.”
—Ryan M., third-year undergraduate, State University of New York, Empire State College

“If I am doing something to glorify my God, then it is spiritual. That could be adventuring in the outdoors, working out, etc. But if it isn’t for the glory of God, e.g., if I’m working out to attract as many guys as possible, then it isn’t a spiritual practice.”
—Elizabeth G., fourth-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University

“Spirituality is doing whatever you’re doing and being spiritual whilst doing it. Nothing is inherently spiritual until you think of or relate to it as such… Meditation is not a spiritual practice, though it can be used for spiritual purposes. It is a great way to bring down one’s stress levels.

“Not believing in a higher power allows me to make decisions based on my own well-being, and move forward with what I want rather than what someone else wants for me. By working toward goals through action rather than praying for something to happen, I’ve become proactive in my life, and things I want actually come to pass. I’m no longer waiting for the universe to bend my way.”
—Ariel F., third-year student, St. Lawrence College, Ontario

Thriving relationships

What spirituality means for my relationships

“Intentionally being with friends, building community and opening up, sharing intimate parts of my life with people. When I have something challenging or something amazing going on in my life, other people experience that with me, and I feel loved by that.”
—Third-year undergraduate, name & college withheld

“I volunteer for a youth ministry program. It helps me stay grounded and hold myself accountable as a role model.”
—Danielle D., third-year undergraduate, Metropolitan State University, Denver

“I believe that you should do unto others as you would do to yourself. This helps me to respect everyone, regardless of color, religion, etc.”
—Rich W., third-year graduate student, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

 “Meeting with a small group of Christians, building a community of support that is almost impossible to find outside of like-minded believers, is the single most important social connection in my life during school.”
—Jordan P., fourth-year undergraduate, Oregon Institute of Technology

“I learned to accept gay people.”
—Raymond B., second-year undergraduate, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The power of perspective

How spirituality helps me keep things in perspective

“The main benefit of belief in a higher power is the reminder that my college experience and my efforts to navigate it are just that—one person’s college experience, one person’s undergraduate years. Not doing as well as I would have hoped in a course or having roommate issues is tough but insignificant, really, in the grand scheme of things, both in its implications for my lifetime and overall for everything under the higher power.”
—Sarah K., first-year graduate student, Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania

“When everyone around me is stressed out and their attitudes are contagious, I stand back for a moment and find a quiet place and just pray and find inner peace and tranquility.”
—Dave B., second-year student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“Yoga takes me away from all the petty things in life that seem large and prevents them from taking over my life and my spirit. The meditation and focus on my body and muscles bring me to a place where I find peace, and this place I can easily access when I am feeling depressed, frustrated, or stressed. Then I can reach a place where I am more able to handle the situation in a healthy way.”
—Nicole S., fourth-year undergraduate, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

Coping with college

How spirituality helps me in college

“There were times where I just wanted to give up on school, but praying about the situation helped.”
—Jasmine H., fourth-year undergraduate, Midwestern State University, Texas

“Almost daily meditation really helps to calm, center, and focus me before a particularly challenging rehearsal, class, or work session.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, name & college withheld

“Bible study has prepared me for studying and understanding the curriculum of the classes that I’m taking, to better prepare me for what’s ahead academically.”
—Michael L., second-year undergraduate, Metropolitan State University, Denver

“As a Catholic, I look to God whenever I am struggling. When rejected by one of my top choice schools, I was completely lost, but when I look back on it now, I am so happy that it turned out the way it did. Believing in God got me through the rejection and brought even greater things my way.”
—Melanie R., second-year undergraduate, Framingham State University, Massachusetts

“Asking for divine intervention to stay awake and finish the assignment.”
—Sidney H., online student, Park University, Missouri

Tough times

How spirituality gets me through tough times

“As a Muslim I pray five times a day; I can shut everything and everyone out for five minutes and focus on God. I’m a firm believer that God plans out everything perfectly, and that helps me cope with whatever comes my way.”
—Yosra E., second-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“My beliefs have allowed me to keep focused on my goals and pick myself back up whenever I do something horrendously stupid or embarrassing.”
—George B., second-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin

“Reciting the Gayatri Mantra (a Hindu vedic chant) after my morning shower provides me with positive energy to tackle the obstacles I could face during the day.”
—Amith M., third-year graduate student, Clemson University, South Carolina

“I am Buddhist. We believe hard work will pay off, and being able to forgive others, even yourself, takes courage. You may fail so many times in life, but it is OK as long you are willing to get back up and try one more time.”
—Crystal T., third-year undergraduate, Texas Women’s University

“I like to think what would Joan Rivers do? She went through something rougher and came out laughing, so why can’t I do the same?”
—Martin M, first-year undergraduate, San Bernardino Valley College, California

“When I am at my breaking point, I use the Islamic prayer to calm my mind.”
—William M., third-year undergraduate, Elon University, North Carolina

 “Prayer relaxes my soul.”
—Mirka L., third-year undergraduate, California State University, San Bernardino


Young Americans reinvent spirituality and religion

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Young adults in the US are increasingly likely to identify with more than one religious or spiritual tradition. One in five college students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey considered themselves multifaith, meaning they embrace a blend of religious and spiritual influences.

In most cases, US students complemented Christianity with Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Native American practices, or another tradition. “I believe in Christianity, but I also believe in the love and empathy I’ve learned through studying Buddhism, as well as the five pillars of Islamic faith. I essentially practice whatever I think will make me a better, more caring, understanding, and compassionate person,” says Michaela D., a second-year undergraduate at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

  • Sixteen percent of Americans identify as multifaith, according to a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
  • Nearly 1 in 3 Americans say they explore the spiritual ideas or practices of other religious faiths sometimes or often.
  • 4 in 10 Americans say they meditate at least once a week.

Americans’ increasing familiarity with minority religions is due partly to the rise of interfaith marriage: 1 in 4 marriages involve a couple of different religious backgrounds, according to the 2012 General Social Survey.

The three most common blendings in our student survey:

  • Judaism-Christianity: The Hebrew Bible shares many sources with the Christian Bible. The two religions have similar theology on some points, including the legitimacy of Biblical prophets, belief in angels and demons, and worship of the God of Abraham.
  • Judaism-Buddhism: This pairing dates to the 19th
    century. An estimated 30 percent of western
    Buddhists are of Jewish heritage. Buddhism provides a connection to mystical aspects of theology that some believe Judaism lacks.
  • Buddhism-Christianity: Buddhism’s meditation practices can help Christians find greater satisfaction in prayer. Buddhism allows flexibility of belief, so
    Buddhists can draw from Christian moral teachings.