Public Release: 

Spiritual beliefs and existential meaning in later life

Economic & Social Research Council

Older people who have a strong sense of spiritual belief and personal meaning in life are less likely to suffer from depression or mental health problems even when they have lost a spouse within the past year.

New research which explores the lives of recently bereaved older people found a clear association between level of belief, personal meaning and well-being. The study by Professor Peter Coleman, University of Southampton, is part of the major research programme Growing Older: Extending the Quality of Life, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council.

The research found that other people, similarly bereaved, but whose beliefs were weaker, were much more likely to reveal depression symptoms. A considerable number of these people also gave indications of similarly low scores on both personal meaning and existential transcendence (rising above the failures of living).

The sample of 28 recently bereaved people's experiences were analysed as individual case studies. The participants were drawn from three areas in the south of England. Bereavement and beliefs is a notoriously difficult area to research so the participants were identified with the help of GPs and funeral directors. They took part in three in-depth personal interviews conducted by a counsellor, which were scheduled for the first anniversary of the spouse's death, six months later and after the second anniversary. Evidence was taken on:

- the person's adjustment to bereavement;

- the role of belief systems in that adjustment;

- the support for those belief systems.

Consideration for each person's need for counselling, including pastoral care, was taken into account.

Out of the 28, nine indicated low or weak spiritual beliefs, 11 moderate levels of beliefs and eight had strong beliefs. The researchers were particularly interested in those whose score was moderate and in how spiritual help might be made most relevant to these people. Eight of the 11 people with moderate beliefs thought that their lives had lost meaning and purpose and several showed depressive symptoms during the second year after losing their spouse.

The remaining three in the 11 moderate belief category were equally interesting, however, in showing in different ways the value of spiritual belief. One woman had major difficulties in adjusting to bereavement and these were related to her doubts about her spiritual beliefs. But these beliefs seem to have been strong enough to have helped her in eventually recovering and went towards explaining her strong sense of personal meaning.

The research identified evidence on the importance of early experience and particularly faith as handed down by parents (the participants had various denominational backgrounds within a Christian setting). "It is possible to conceptualise the development of religious belief as in part an attachment process whereby trust in parents is extended to a higher power", says Professor Peter Coleman, psychologist, University of Southampton.

The decline in the practice of religion, which has been apparent among older people as well as the rest of the population in the last 20 years, does not mean that spiritual beliefs have declined, says the report. A large part of the population still believes in some sort of transcendent power or in God. What has happened is the loss of respect for the authority of the Christian churches. More freedom, however, has to be set against isolation and lack of support provided by organised structures, says the report.

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For further information contact: Professor Peter Coleman, tel: Monday, Wednesday and Friday on 02380 594602 at Department of Psychology; or Tuesday and Thursday on 02380 796131 at Medical School, University of Southampton, email: P.G.Coleman@soton.ac.uk

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