Do happiness scholars really want to promote positive parapsychology? I don’t want to be gratuitously mean-spirited, but I’m afraid there are a few of our kindred spirits out there who are still, in the 21st century, far too eager to push spirit-speak as a sloppy way of talking about the trickier aspects of the pursuit of happiness. Some of these people may deny that they believe in the occult, or that they are in effect promoting parapsychological ways of talking and thinking. But insistence on dragging spirits into our conversations about happiness seems to be just as clamorous as it was in the New Age heyday of the 1970s. What’s worse, serious scholars and senior bureaucrats are among the enthusiasts.

Here’s a puzzle. In its Constitution, drafted in the late 1940s, the World Health Organization announced that wellbeing or health (terms which they used synonymously) had three ‘dimensions’: physical, mental, and social. Then in 1991 they announced the importance of recognizing a fourth ‘spiritual dimension’. It’s easy enough to understand how someone could have good physical health or a good social life while being mentally ill, but how could someone be well in ‘spirit’ but not in ‘mind’? Even someone who believes in souls or guardian spirits would surely have trouble imagining such a situation.

So it seems that the original three-way definition of wellbeing was adequate, and that the addition of a ‘spiritual dimension’ confuses matters. But it’s not just the WHO getting itself in a muddle over this. Countless versions of ‘mind, body, and spirit’ can be found on Google images, and not a single one of them is linked to a plausible explanation of the distinction. If scholars agreed that mind and spirit were different kinds of thing, we would surely have some discipline other than ‘psychology’ to study the mind – mentology, perhaps, or ‘mental philosophy’ as it used to be called. Moreover, even if someone can explain the point of distinguishing mind and spirit, what plausible implications could this distinction have for the promotion of health or happiness? And is ‘mindfulness’ not to a large extent about the kinds of things many people call ‘spiritual’?

So is the idea of ‘spiritual wellbeing’ an interestingly challenging rubric for an emerging sub-discipline that takes the label ‘psychology’ at face value, meaning the study of ‘spirit’? Or is it just stale counter-enlightenment hot air that we should forget about? The English language is replete with terms and phrases that show traces of ancient theories of the mystery of consciousness: ‘chicken soup for the soul’; ‘that’s the spirit’; ‘soul music’; and of course ‘psychology’ and ‘spiritual wellbeing’. These terms point vaguely towards some of the more mysterious, elusive, nonmaterial pleasures of human consciousness.

But do most people, if they think about their meaning at all, recognize these as archaic metaphors? Most people alive today have some kind of soul-belief, but does that mean happiness scholarship ought to accommodate those beliefs regardless of whether they correspond to any reality? In contemporary psychology it seems there is an increasingly vociferous and USA-led anti-secular lobby trying to gain recognition and even scientific credibility for spirit-speak, and specifically for the concept of ‘spiritual wellbeing’. Even the growing percentage of crudely-labeled ‘nones’ (people without religious beliefs) in the USA seem in general to want to cling on to ‘secular spirituality’ to describe their most elusive or ‘deep’ feelings and ‘authentic’ selves – even if they claim to have abandoned belief in the supernatural. What should rational people do about this? How can we find kindly but also intelligent ways of engaging with people who seem determined to pretend that the ‘spirit’ and the ‘mind’ are different entities that require different kinds of care?

You may have noticed that a ‘happiness lens’ is increasingly being used to justify various activities and ways of living. For example, people have sought to justify both ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ by claiming not simply that they are virtuous, but also that they are good for our happiness, or even that they essential constituents of a well-lived life. It’s no surprise that happiness research, still in its infancy as an academic discipline, attracts a lot of woolly thinkers. Nowhere is this more obvious than in texts that address or promote ‘spiritual wellbeing’ or ‘spirtual health’, along with the implication that happiness isn’t real, or virtuous, or authentic enough without a ‘spiritual’ dimension.

Vagueness isn’t, of course, the only problem with spirit-speak: there’s often a heady mix of worthier-than-thou moral smugness and counter-enlightenment anti-science into the bargain. Some people, it seems, can’t enjoy life without persuading people to congratulate them on their superior ‘spirituality’. Within the confines of church halls and voodoo tents this may be harmless enough, but should we let it take up valuable research budgets and class time?

Well, let’s give the term a chance and see if we can salvage some useful ideas from the cacophony of vacuous and downright absurd things that so many people say about spirituality. I want to explore whether there is any glimmer of hope that some kind of sane and useful ways of talking about happiness might be organized under the ‘spiritual’ rubric. This seems to me possible, though very unlikely. Since a colossal amount of research money is now being spent on investigating ‘spirituality’ and ‘spiritual wellbeing’, I’d welcome your thoughts on the subject. I’d like to pose three kinds of questions:

First, after thousands of years of speculative talk on the subject, does anyone actually have a concept of ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality’ that is coherent enough to warrant at least some of its contemporary use in scholarship and formal policy discourse? Even if we can’t measure spirituality and describe some people as ‘more spiritual’ than others (though there are plenty of scholars who believe such quantitative comparisons are possible and desirable), might the term at least be useful as a conversation-starter, like the similarly vague word ‘happiness’ for example? Second, if so, does it make any sense to talk of ‘spiritual wellbeing’?

Secondly, do the qualities referred to by this term have intrinsic, ultimate value, rather than just instrumental value? Is it good in itself to be ‘spiritual’, and harmful in itself to be lacking in spirit? Or are we supposed to admire and cultivate ‘spiritual’ character traits and activities because they are a route to happiness?

Thirdly, just supposing that there is some kind of coherent and widely-agreed kind of referent for ‘spiritual wellbeing’ that is genuinely different from ‘psychological wellbeing’ despite the 100% overlap in etymology, does anyone have a clue about what planners should do to promote these different kinds of wellbeing in different ways?

All of these questions open up important debates about studies of religion, psychology, and happiness. It’s worth noting that whereas there’s ample research on religiosity and wellbeing, almost no-one uses the concept of ‘religious wellbeing’. By contrast, ‘spiritual wellbeing’ has not only taken off like wildfire as a research concept and as a policy rubric, but it’s gone remarkably unchallenged.

Here are three possible justifications for the term. I’d welcome your thoughts on them:

  1. ‘Spiritual’ might be a useful way of confessing that we experience and enjoy mysterious feelings and magical moments of bliss that we can’t quite grasp the significance of, and hence can’t discuss rationally or measure scientifically. These are of course mental phenomena, but very different from everyday thoughts and feelings. In this sense, everyone enjoys ‘spiritual’ experiences, although some people may savour these more than others and for this reason what to describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. It’s hard to imagine a plausible justification for measuring ‘spirituality’ in this sense.
  2. ‘Spiritual’ might a diplomatic way of referring to religiosity that distracts attention from potentially divisive religious doctrines. The concept of shared spirituality indicates nonparochial, ecumenical openness to mutual recognition of shared religious experience between people of different faiths.
  3. For people who choose to believe in occult entities like gods, spirits, and souls, ‘spiritual’ might simply serve as a term to describe a person’s appreciation of those entities. ‘Spiritual wellbeing’ in this sense might be imagined as referring to some nonmental entity, such as a person’s immortal soul or their ‘union’ with the deity they worship.

Since there’s obviously no scientific purpose in the latter two religious uses of the term, and since the first term is really a synonym for ‘ineffable’ mental experiences, my own conclusion is that there’s probably no justifiable scientific or bureaucratic use of the terms ‘spiritual wellbeing’ or ‘spiritual health’. These terms certainly cause confusion, and quite likely they sometimes also cause offence to religious people (who may resent secular appropriation of terms that belong in the religious domain); to atheists (who may resent the assumption that to live well we ought to believe in spirits); and to rational scientists (who may resent the intrusive absurdity of the notion of ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ being different things).

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