The Forgotten Dimension of Wellness?

What do you think of when I say Wellness? I’ll tell you what comes to mind for me….

Organic  food. Yoga. Happiness. Feeling healthy. Balance.

The list goes on…

Here at Student Wellness, we like to think about wellness holistically; here are nine dimensions of wellness:


Whew! NINE dimensions. This goes way beyond organic food and working out. If you are like me, you might notice one dimension that doesn’t seem to get as much attention as the others, but may actually have a bigger impact on your wellness than any other: Spirituality.


What is spirituality?

There is no easy answer to this question. Different people define spirituality differently. Generally, spirituality involves the search for meaning and understanding in life, transcending the physical world, or connecting to something larger than or outside oneself. For some, spirituality is grounded in their religious belief or faith in God or higher power. For others, spirituality may involve developing respect and awe for life, the world, and our interdependence. Spirituality is something that evolves; it is a way of being, a process, rather than a goal. And how you define spirituality in your life is up to you.


How do spirituality and religion intersect?

There are a myriad of definitions of spirituality and religion. Generally, spirituality is viewed as a more general term that involves finding meaning in life, transcending the physical world, and connecting to others. Religion provides a vehicle for spiritual practice, through faith in God or another higher power, core beliefs, rituals or practices, and fellowship with others.

Spirituality and religion can overlap, but the extent to which they overlap may differ for different people. Some people may view their spirituality as synonymous with their religious beliefs and practice, but a growing number of people, especially young people, in America identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Here are some recent survey findings from the Pew Research Foundation:

  • 37% of respondents identify as “spiritual and not religious”
  • 32% of respondents under 30 list “no religious affiliation”
  • 68% of respondents believe in God

These findings are reflected in U.S. Census data on religious affiliation in America:

2008 (1990): Christian Other None
  76% (86%) 4% (3) 15% (8)

Compared to 1990, an increasing number of Americans identify None” as their religious affiliation, and those identifying as Christian has gone from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008.

Why is spirituality important?

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

College is a time of exploring and affirming identity, and this includes your spiritual identity. This may mean deepening the spiritual practice or religious faith you grew up with; or it may mean looking at spirituality in a new way and redefining it yourself. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has conducted a 7-year national study on spirituality among college students, and they have identified 10 dimensions of spirituality and religion:

Which of these areas most resonates with you? Which area would you like to focus more time and energy on? Examining these dimensions of spirituality and religion can help guide you in growing spiritually. And growing spiritually can positively affect other areas of your life.

Check out these findings from the UCLA study:

  • Among college students, spiritual growth is associated with better psychological well-being, higher GPA, and a commitment to promoting racial understanding.
  • Practices that promote spiritual development – especially service learning, interdisciplinary courses, study abroad, self-reflection, and meditation – have uniformly positive effects on traditional college outcomes, like retention and satisfaction.
  • Although religious engagement declines somewhat during college, students’ spiritual qualities grow substantially.
  • Exposing students to diverse people, cultures, and ideas through study abroad, interdisciplinary coursework, service learning and other forms of civic engagement helps students value multiple perspectives as they confront the complex social, economic, and political problems of our time.
  • Self-reflection and meditation are among the most powerful tools for enhancing students’ spiritual development.

Spirituality is linked to better health outcomes not only among college students, but also across the lifespan. Research examining spirituality’s role in health care shows that patients with a strong sense of spirituality have lower mortality, better coping skills, and higher resilience.


What does spirituality look like at UNC?

Well, we have some hard data on what religion looks like at UNC, or more specifically, religious affiliation, and UNC students mirror the national trends when it comes to religion:  72% Christian, 2% other, 19% none.

Here is a breakdown of the most common religious affiliations reported by UNC first years:

Religion at UNC[1]

But UNC students identified many more religious affiliations, including:

Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Hindu, Jewish, LDS (Mormon, Lutheran, Muslim, Presbyterian, Quaker, Seventh Day Adventist, United Church of Christ, and other religion.

Additionally, 83% of UNC students report regularly attending a religious service.

But what I had a hard time finding was what spirituality looks like at UNC. Fifty-five percent of students said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life (aka spirituality!) was “essential” or “very important.” But how does that translate into practice?

So, here’s where we need YOUR HELP.

If you are looking for ways to develop your spirituality or connect with others that share your religious and spiritual beliefs check out our website for organizations on campus and in the community. Also, check out the UNC Mind-Body-Spirit webpage for events and resources for exploring spirituality.

Do you know of a local or campus group that is not listed on our website? Please LET US KNOW, and we will add it.

[1] 2009 UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) annual Survey of Entering Freshmen.

Can I get an ‘Amen’ for hooking up?

And this is sin and this is good
Now lover don’t regress to shame
I know that god was with us girl,
I heard you call his name (Oh my god)

 – Bodies, Soul Miners’ Daughter

Some say that the higher power you pray to and hookups don’t mix.  Since many people define a “hookup” as a) random, b) racy, and c) often party-fueled, many religions and spiritual traditions understandably aren’t jumping on the hookup bandwagon too quickly.

Even the less random, less party-fueled, and less racy interactions – you know, good ol’ consensual sex, sometimes in the context of a loving relationship – and the  celibacy until marriage often condoned by religious traditions serve as two divergent aspirations. How do students reconcile these so-called angels and demons?

Sex and the Soul
Fritas’ book, Sex and the Soul

Donna Freitas, an associate professor of religious studies at Boston University, interviewed students at a variety of higher education institutions around the country for her book, “Sex and the Soul.” She came to the conclusion that students struggle with reconciling their faith and sexuality. The the sex-promoting messages from peers, media, and one’s own body result in feelings of shame and guilt on the spiritual side – a far cry from the positive feelings, the “Oh. My. God.,” and, for some, the spiritual connection that can be gained from sexual experiences.

The question, then, is whether it is possible to be spiritual or religious, be sexy and even sexual, and not regress to shame.

Perhaps we can start with thinking about it. So…

Step one – think about it. I started by thinking about the side of me that has faith and the side of me that has sex (it’s cool, I’m married – – and the fact that I felt the need to add that caveat exactly proves my point). I thought about where the two sides of me mix. You might consider having the same conversation with yourself.

Step two – talk about it. I started by talking about faith with my friends – and, when it felt safe, asking about sex in the context of faith. If you want to go further, you might even sit down with your spiritual leader or (gasp!) your family to have an open conversation about sex in your religious tradition.

Step three…well, that’s probably another post for another time.

What do you think? Can we reconcile our spiritual and sexual sides?

I linked to these above, but I gotta give some mad props.
To Soul Miner’s Daughter: for capturing the sweet sultriness of a spiritual hookup in song form via Bodies.
To Donna Freitas for diving into this question on a dissertation-sized scale.
And to the journalism students at UC Berkely for putting together an amazing website, Moral Compass, that shows what spiritual leaders from a variety of faith traditions teach on pre-marital sex, contraception, LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and, yes, even abortion.