Why People Turn to Religion and Spirituality?: Positive Emotions as Leading to Religion and Spirituality

Why do people turn to religion and spirituality? There is considerable cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental evidence that religion serves as a refuge from a number of negative psychological experiences or emotions, and compensation needs. All this evidence gives support to classic theorists who have emphasized the defensive function of religion against frustration, anxiety, fear, deprivation, and so on (e.g., Freud, 1927/1961; Glock, 1964; Marx, 1843/1979). However, the question arises as to whether positive life events and positive emotions can also lead to religion and spirituality. For instance, if people may turn to God and spirituality when they lose a loved one, might they also turn to God and spirituality when they fall in love? Similarly, if threats coming from the external world push people to turn to religion and spirituality, can positive emotions relative to this external world also lead to some interest in or increase of religion and spirituality? The aim of the present paper is to investigate whether positive experiences can lead to religion and spirituality. As introduction, this paper reports traditional literature (and studies we previously carried out) on religious motives, mainly in negative terms of socio-affective and cognitive needs. Second, we explore the literature in terms of hypothetical links between positive emotions/events and religion/spirituality. Lastly, in order to explore the causal relation between such positive emotions and religion/spirituality, two recently published studies (Saroglou, Buxant, & Tilquin, 2008) are reported.

Negative experiences, emotions, and compensation needs as predicting religion and spirituality

Literature noticeably shows that religion serves as a refuge from a number of negative psychological experiences or emotions. Indeed, religion increases following socioeconomic distress (e.g. Wimberley, 1984). The death of a loved one may also elicit interest in religion and spirituality (e.g., Michael, Crowether, Schmid, & Allen, 2003). Facing an illness, personal crises, and negative life events have often been found to predict conversion and greater religious and spiritual involvement (Spilka, Hood, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 2003). More subtly, religion and spirituality seem to buffer against anxiety, especially death-related and existential anxiety. When mortality is made salient, people show stronger belief in God and supernatural agents in general (Norenzayan & Hansen, 2006), and people with extrinsic value orientation show higher levels of spirituality (Cozzolino, Staples, Meyers, & Samboceti, 2004). The religious beliefs of the intrinsically religious people and religious fundamentalists seem to play a protective role in managing terror of death (Friedman & Rholes, 2007, 2008; Jonas & Fischer, 2006). More particularly, two self-deficiency needs seem to frequently elicit an interest in religion and spirituality. These are the need for affective security and the need for cognitive closure.

Need for affective security. There is now substantial evidence that people who have experienced insecurity in attachment to parents or to an adult partner tend to be attracted by religious and spiritual beliefs, practices (Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008), and groups including New Religious Movements (NRM; Buxant, Saroglou, Casalfiore, & Christians, 2007; Buxant & Saroglou, 2008). Insecure attachment also seems to correspond to a heightened interest in new forms of spirituality, and a desire to become disaffiliated from the religion of one’s parents (Buxant, Saroglou, & Scheuer, 2009a; Buxant, Saroglou, & Tesser, 2009b; Buxant et al., 2007; Farias & Granqvist, 2007; Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008). Among individuals with a history of emotional-relational insecurity, God is often considered a surrogate attachment figure, with religion and spirituality serving as a safe haven (Kirkpatrick, 2005). The role of insecure attachment with one’s adult romantic partner is less evident. Overall, high levels of anxiety in adult attachments seem to be characteristic of people undergoing some forms of conversion (Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008). The same insecurity is thought to characterize spiritual seeking among participants in spirituality and self-development related conferences (Buxant et al., 2008) as well as people interested in spirituality and esotericism related books (Saroglou, Kempeneers, & Seynhaeve, 2003). However, people who are now members of NRMs tend to report low insecurity in attachment (Buxant et al., 2007) which may be a reflection of the positive, compensatory effect of belonging to a religious group.

Need for cognitive closure. With regard to the second self-deficiency need, there is evidence that religious individuals (Duriez, 2003; Saroglou, 2002), as well as those interested in spirituality conferences and books (Buxant et al., 2008; Saroglou et al., 2003) are characterized by a high need for cognitive closure. Need for closure is defined as the desire for definite knowledge-answers on some issues and the eschewal of confusion and ambiguity (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994). Important components of the need for closure include the need for order and predictability, i.e. “desiring definite order and structure in one’s own life and abhorring unconstrained chaos and disorder” (preference for order) and “desiring a secure or stable knowledge, indicating a knowledge that can be relied on across circumstances and which is unchallenged by exceptions or disagreement” (preference for predictability) (Webster & Kruglanski, p. 1050). The need for closure increases after situational conditions of stress, implying uncertainty and difficulty of information processing (Kruglanski, 2004). Interestingly, there is some previous evidence for this among people who join NRMs (Buxant et al., 2007), converts to more traditional religions (Buxant et al., 2009a), free-lance spiritual seekers, i.e. people attending various spirituality and self-development conferences outside the framework of organized religious groups (Buxant et al., 2009b), and even atheists (Buxant & Saroglou, 2009). All these populations scored higher on the measure of need for closure, in comparison to norms from general population. Taken together, results from our previous published studied compose an interesting pattern illustrated by the following figure. It seems reasonable to understand it as a correspondence between supply and demand: people may join the specific religious group that best fits their aspirations.


Figure 1: Comparison between groups on the Need for closure scale (order subscale)1

Alternative, self-growth motives as linked to religion and spirituality

However, in addition to compensation needs in the affective and cognitive sphere, it could be expected that modern religion/spirituality is characterized by motivations that denote self-realization and optimal development. In accord with the perspective of the hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1970), it has been proposed that religion and spirituality correspond to, and satisfy, not only deficiency needs (i.e. safety, esteem, love) but also self-actualization needs (Batson & Stocks, 2004; see also Pargament & Park, 1995). These self-growth motives may include such things as aesthetic interests (appreciation of beauty and excellence) and openness to an alternative, higher, views of reality (openness to experience). As Wink, Dillon, and Fay (2005) point out, self-investment within the context of spirituality may “not derive from vulnerability but from openness to new experiences and an interest in personal growth” (p. 145). This is especially the case with openness to aesthetics, fantasy, and feelings (Saroglou & MuÒoz-GarcÌa, 2008). Positive motivations could also include prosocial moral concerns implying responsibility for future generations (generativity), the desire to optimally improve oneself in various domains of life (existential achievement), or the cognitive desire to be curious and open to new and complex cognitive issues (need for cognition).

In a previous study (Buxant et al., 2009a), 180 converts to a variety of mainstream religions (Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism) completed questionnaires measuring attachment with parents in childhood (Hazan & Shaver, 1987), adult romantic attachment (The Experiences in Close Relationships Scale-revised; Fraley, Waller, & Brennan, 2000), need for closure (NFCS; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994; French translation by Caroff, Berjot, Fievet, & Drozda, 2003), need for cognition (Need for Cognition Scale; Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984), generativity (see Buxant et al., 2009a), appreciation on beauty and excellence (Values in Action-Inventory of Strengths; Peterson & Seligman, 2004), and existential achievement (see Buxant et al., 2009a). Compared to scores from the general population on the same measures, our results suggested a general existence of affective (insecure attachment to parents, avoidance in adult attachment) and cognitive (need for closure) needs. Regarding self-growth motives, except generativity, which was shared by all converts, the presence of other alternative motives was delimited to specific religions in a way that could be interpreted (again) in terms of correspondence between supply (people’s motives) and offer (group’s characteristics).

Another previous study already pointed out above (Buxant & Saroglou, 2009b) focused on free-lance spiritual seekers, i.e. people attending various spirituality and self-development conferences outside the framework of organized religious groups. A population of 204 of such free-lance spiritual seekers was compared to the general population and to members of NRMs on the following measures: attachment to parents in childhood, adult attachment, need for closure, need for cognition, openness to experience (NEO Personality Inventory-Revised; Costa & McCrae, 1992), and quest religious orientation (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992). Results indicated that free-lance spiritual seekers, in comparison to the general population, share with NRM members similar cognitive (need for closure) and affective (insecure attachment in childhood) needs that seem to be addressed by spirituality. However, in comparison to NRM members, free-lance spiritual seekers scored higher on measures reflecting self-growth, i.e. openness to experience and quest religious orientation, and lower on need for closure. These findings may be interpreted as indicating a desire among free-lance spiritual seekers to preserve autonomy.

Taken together, these two reported studies—illustrating the likely co-existence of compensatory needs and self-growth motives—suggests that seeing these two kinds of motives (see Maslow’s distinction between “deficiency” and “self-actualization” needs) as conflicting or opposite may not correspond to the reality of the religious/spiritual motivation. Although distinct in nature and in consequences, these motives may be complementary, functioning simultaneously, and leading to convergent goals, i.e. a decision to change one’s own life in order to make it better and more fulfilling than before. Going even further, one can assume that it is the acknowledgement of a deficiency that may stimulate change towards optimal development (see Paloutzian, 2005).

Positive experiences and emotions as predicting religion and spirituality?

To our knowledge, it is hard to find empirical evidence that supports a causal link from positive events and emotions to religion or spirituality. There is of course substantial correlational evidence that religion/spirituality, constructs themselves theorized as components of positive psychology (Mattis, 2004; Pargament & Mahoney, 2002), are linked with positivity in life, well-being, happiness, and specific positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2002; Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001; Lewis & Cruise, 2006). However, this causal direction may be double-sided. Positivity in people’s life and the experience of positive emotions are often theorized as being consequences of religion/spirituality (Fredrickson, 2002; Hill, 2002; see also Ciarrocchi & Yanni-Brelsford, 2007; Joseph, Linley, & Maltby, 2006), especially in the presence of previous negative events and emotions, but they may also be, as we have argued in Saroglou et. al. (2008), antecedents of attachment to and endorsement of religion or spirituality.

The powerful potential of positive emotions

A great deal of theoretical and empirical work on positive emotions provides arguments in favor of our hypothesis that positive experiences and emotions can lead to religion and spirituality. According to Fredrickson’s (1998, 2001) broaden-and-build theory and subsequent research, positive emotions broaden people’s thought-action repertories, encouraging them to discover novel lines of thought and action. For instance, inducing positive affect widens the scope of attention and increases intuition and creativity (see Fredrickson & Losada, 2005, for a review). Studies by Isen and colleagues have shown that when people feel good, their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information (see Isen, 1987, for review). In addition, positive emotions enhance people’s feeling that life is meaningful (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006) and help them find positive meaning in ordinary events and in adversity (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000; Fredrickson, 2001). Moreover, positive emotions imply the feeling of “oneness” with other people: they lead to an increase of the self-other overlap and to a more complex understanding of others (Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006), reduce the own-race bias in face recognition (Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005), and lead people to see both ingroup and outgroup members as belonging to one superordinate group (Dovidio, Gaertner, Isen, & Lowrance, 1995). Finally, positive emotions facilitate holistic attentional processing and enhance the individual’s ability to see the “big picture” (Basso, Schefft, Ris, & Dember, 1996; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).

Based on this research, we hypothesized that positive emotions would make people more open to, interested in, or attached to religion/spirituality. Religion/spirituality provides an alternative perception of reality, different from the perception of everyday reality (e.g., Berger, 1997). Religious and spiritual beliefs, rituals, and narratives involve intuition and creativity (Aarnio & Lindeman, 2007; Berry, 1999), positive meaning, belief in the meaningfulness of life, integration and sense of coherence (Park, 2005), positive reframing of negative experiences (Pargament, 1997), as well as prosocial and altruistic ideals and values (Saroglou, Pichon, Trompette, Verschueren, & Dernelle, 2005). Finally, the holistic perception favored by positive emotions may facilitate the experiential, mystical dimension of religion/spirituality.

Testing the causal link between positive emotions and religion/spirituality

Two studies were conducted in order to explore the causal relation between such positive emotions and religion/spirituality (they are fully reported in Saroglou, Buxant, and Tilquin, 2008). In both of them, participants (Ns = 91 and 87) watched one of three video clips: (1) appreciation of nature, (2) wonder at a childbirth, or (3) amusement (comedy); a fourth condition included a control, neutral video. A pretest intended to check for the intensity and specific nature of the emotions induced by these video stimuli was conducted. Results from the pretest confirmed the distinctiveness of each of these four video clips as well as the pertinence for using them for the purposes of the study. First, all three video clips (Childbirth, Nature, and Humor) induced more pleasure and enjoyment in comparison to the neutral video. Second, Childbirth and Nature induced high levels of ecstasy, wonder, and sadness in comparison to the Neutral and Humor ones. Finally, Childbirth elicited more affection and tender feelings than Nature.

Study 1. Effect of positive emotions on religiousness. After the exposure to the respective by condition video, participants filled in a measure of personal religiousness composed of the following six items (7-point Likert scale): “Religion is important in my life”; “Without God the world would not have a meaning”; “The great religions of the world give a message that is useful for the everyday life”; “God is important in my life”; “God does not exist” (reverse-scored); “God (or a divine force) is at the origin of the world”. On the whole, results did not show a significant difference among the four conditions on the level of religiousness.2 Nevertheless, when the conditions Baby and Nature are considered together they differ from the control condition. In this first study, our hypothesis was thus confirmed only to some extent.

One possible statistical explanation of this lack of clear results is the low scores of religiousness in general that could indicate a floor effect. Another way to more concretely investigate our hypothesis is to focus on the distinctiveness between the constructs of religion and spirituality and to explore the latter. By revisiting the arguments presented in the introduction, one can realize that the many cognitive and emotional implications of positive emotions we reviewed apply more to spirituality and less to religion. First, the openness to novelty, intuition, and creativity that are implied by the experience of positive emotions (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005; Isen, 1987; Shiota, Keltner, & John, 2006) fit better with spirituality than religion. It is the first construct but not traditional religiousness that systematically relates to openness to experience (Piedmont, 2005; Saroglou, 2002; Saucier & Skrzypińska, 2006).

Second, if positive emotions in general, and in particular the specific emotions elicited by our video stimuli, imply some perception of vastness and interconnectedness of things within the world, they may more easily lead to a spiritual attitude of connection with a transcendent reality and the world as a whole (see the definition of spirituality by Piedmont, 1999) and openness to universalistic values, and less if not at all to the concrete religious beliefs implied by specific questions about God. Again, it is spirituality rather than religion that reflects universalistic values (Saroglou et al., 2004; Saroglou & MuÒoz-GarcÌa, 2007), openness to broader than the one’s own reality, including openness to alternative realities (Saucier & Skrzypińska, 2006), and broad – with respect to the status of targets – prosocial attitudes and behavior (Saroglou et al., 2005).

Finally, positive emotions, although they activate a series of feelings, cognitions, and behaviors, do not necessarily lead people to take specific actions: the action tendencies implied by positive emotions are vague and underspecified (Fredrickson, 1998). It may then be that the positive emotions elicited by our experiment could not lead people to make a step toward clearly religious attitudes or beliefs. Religion, in contrast with spirituality (see Belzen, 2005), necessarily implies engagement (in terms of personal decisions, acts, and practices) and affiliation with groups and organized traditional belief systems. We investigated thus in Study 2 whether positive emotions implying wonder and self-transcendence could increase participants’ positive attitude towards spirituality.

Study 2. Effect of positive emotions on spirituality. The effect of the same video tapes (than study one) eliciting positive emotions on spirituality was investigated by using the Spiritual Transcendence Scale (Piedmont, 1999; our French translation). This 24-item scale measures spirituality as the tendency to orient oneself toward a larger transcendent reality that binds all things into a unitive harmony. It reflects the personal search for connection with a larger sacredness. We used its two following subscales: Universality (a belief in the unity and purpose of life; 9 items), Connectedness (a sense of connection and commitment to others and humanity as a whole; 6 items). As expected, results showed that positive emotions have a significant impact on the level of reported spirituality. This however is limited to self-transcendent emotions (Baby and Nature conditions), and does not concern positive emotions that imply mere amusement, i.e. humor.3

Positive emotions as increasing spirituality

As pointed out on the introduction, literature reports considerable cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental evidence that religion serves as a refuge from a number of negative psychological experiences, emotions, and compensation needs. However, the question arose as to whether positive life events and positive emotions can also lead to religion and spirituality. Some theoretical hypotheses have already been explored in the framework of a positive psychology. However, going beyond literature that have mainly investigated the relationship between positive psychology constructs and religion-spirituality (or the impact of the latter on the former), the two studies reported in the present paper provide very initial evidence in favor of a causal link from positive emotions to spirituality (but apparently not to religiousness).

These studies provide initial evidence that positive emotions resulting from the perception of stimuli that stimulate wonder, ecstasy, and respect, such as the appreciation of nature and the wonder at the childbirth, can lead to higher perception of oneself as spiritual. The effects of these stimuli promoted thus the perception of oneself as endorsing the existence of transcendence in personal life and the world, believing in the unity and purpose of life, and having the sense of being connected to others and the world as a whole. Based on contemporary theory and research on positive emotions, especially the broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001), we might assume that encouraging the discovery of novel lines of thought, widening the scope of attention, becoming more integrative, increasing the feeling of “oneness” with others, and finding positive meaning in events and life in general will have beneficial effects on one’s personal disposition towards spirituality.

Future research should investigate whether this effect of some positive emotions on self-perception of spirituality is sufficient to lead to concrete spiritual behaviors or remains at a “surface” level of a general positive predisposition towards spirituality. If the first is true, this could imply that interest and involvement in spirituality may not only be a consequence of previous negative experiences but could also result from some positive experiences and emotions. If the second is true, this could help us to understand why the induction of positive emotions in the present study had less clear effect on explicit evaluations of religiousness.

Interestingly, the present study suggests that not every kind of positive emotion can elicit spiritual attitudes. Humor, a stimulus that elicits mere amusement, had no effect on spirituality. The reality of the two stimuli leading to spirituality seems to importantly correspond with the emotion of awe that has been recently theorized to be “a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion”: its key-elements are perceived vastness and need of accommodation and its related states are admiration and elevation (Keltner, & Haidt, 2003).

Beyond the limitations of the present study and the questions for future research mentioned above, one should not neglect the restricted character of the research sample (psychology students) and the non-ecological aspect of the study (laboratory experiment). These limitations require caution but are also encouraging. It is very likely that in real life, adults from a variety of ages (especially the ones that are particularly sensitive to religious and spiritual quests) experience, in a variety of contexts (personal, social, professional, artistic, flow experiences), positive self-transcendent emotions such as wonder, awe, or appreciation of beauty that may have important consequences on their religious and spiritual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.



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1 Details about scores and statistical analysis can be found on the published papers written by the author and cited in the present paper.

2 Although the differences between conditions were in the expected direction, an ANOVA did not show a significant difference among the four conditions on religiousness, F(3, 87) = 1.54. Nevertheless, a planned contrast comparing the average of the two conditions implying self-transcendent emotions (Ms = 2.53, SDs = 0.98) against the neutral condition was significant, t(60) = 2.03, p < .05, whereas the humor condition was not significantly different from the neutral one, t(43) = 1.79.

3 Indeed, a one-way ANOVA revealed an effect of condition on spirituality, F(3,86) = 7.93, p < .001, η2 = .22. As shown by Tukey post-hoc comparisons, people who watched the videos on Nature and Childbirth scored higher on spirituality (Ms = 3.70, 3.77; SDs = 0.44, 0.46) than people who watched the Humor (M = 3.29, SD = 0.43) and the Neutral (M = 3.29, SD = 0.38) videos, all ps < .05. Distinct ANOVAs for each subscale revealed an effect of conditions for both Universalism, F(3, 86) = 5.40, p < .01, η2 = .16, and Connectedness, F(3, 86) = 5.38, p < .01, η2 = .16. Specifically, the conditions Childbirth and Nature led to higher scores on the Universalism scale (Ms = 3.68, 3.70; SDs = 0.46, 0.50) than did the Humor (M = 3.26, SD = 0.47; ps< .05) and Neutral conditions (M = 3.26, SD = 0.55; ps< .05). A similar pattern was observed for Connectedness: the Childbirthvideotape sequence produced higher scores on this subscale(M = 3.86, SD = 0.55) than the Humor and Neutral videotape sequences (M = 3.33, 3.33; SD = 0.61, 0.52; ps< .01), but for this subscale, the difference between Nature (M = 3.70, SD = 0.51) and the two other conditions did not reach significance.

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