Religion, Spirituality & Emotions

What draws people to religion and spirituality? As for many other questions, psychology started answering this one with a negativity bias. Beliefs in a higher power and larger purpose to life are mostly seen as a compensatory mechanism to overcome fear and uncertainty. For example, religious beliefs have been shown to increase after socioeconomic distress, the death of a loved one, or in times of sickness. However, is adversity the only affective path to religion? My research challenges this assumption and hypothesized that positive experiences are another path toward religious and spiritual beliefs. Specifically, I study positive emotions that transcend typical notions of selfhood, such as awe, elevation, and admiration. These self-transcendent positive emotions (STPE) share the appraisal of seeing something or someone greater or better than the self. They shut down self-concerns and make us want to become better people.

These powerful but secular emotions seem therefore particularly relevant for religion and spirituality. In my research, I tested the causal hypothesis that STPE could increase religious and spiritual beliefs. Across two lab experiments, I randomized participants to different short emotion inductions (e.g., through video-clips or vignettes). Results revealed that after watching a short video-clip or remembering a specific situation eliciting admiration or elevation, participants report being more spiritual (on well established self-report scales) than participants who felt mere amusement or no emotion. Critically, positive and secular mechanisms accounted for these effects: STPE also promote the sense that life is meaningful and that people and the world are benevolent. Across two other lab studies, we also found that when people characterized by higher levels of spirituality and religiousness were induced with STPE of awe, spirituality related feelings and behaviors were increased (feeling of closeness with others and intention to visit a spiritual place). In all these studies other non-self-transcendent positive emotions had no comparable effects.

These results provide the first evidence that belief in a higher power can be the result of a positive self-transcendent process: from positive emotions of awe, elevation, and admiration through a sense of meaning in life and benevolence. In addition, it suggests that some positive emotions have a better capacity of pushing someone to see beyond their self- boundaries to consider the larger scheme of things. Finally, it reveals a new and positive means for people to find meaning in their life and therefore to be helped in times when the search for meaning is a central concern.

Relevant publications: 

Van Cappellen, P. (2017). Rethinking self-transcendent positive emotions and religion: Perspectives from psychological and biblical research. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9, 254-263. (Special Issue on “The Psychology of Virtue: Integrating Positive Psychology and the Psychology of Religion”)

Van Cappellen, P., Saroglou, V., Iweins, C., Piovesana, M., & Fredrickson, B., L. (2013). Self-transcendent positive emotions increase spirituality through basic world assumptions. Cognition and Emotion, 27, 1378-1394.

Van Cappellen, P. & Saroglou, V. (2012). Awe activates religious and spiritual feelings and behavioral intentions. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4, 223-236.

Van Cappellen, P. & Rimé, B. (2014). Positive emotions and self-transcendence. In V. Saroglou (Ed.), Religion, personality, and social behavior (pp. 123-145). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

French translation: Van Cappellen, P., & Rimé, B. (2015). Émotions positives et transcendance de soi. Dans V. Saroglou (dir.), Psychologie de la religion: de la théorie au laboratoire (R. Kaelen, trad., pp. 111-129). Louvain-la-Neuve: De Boeck Supérieur.

Media coverage: 

   Interview with The Pew Charitable Trusts, After the Fact: Rising Spirituality in America.           March 7, 2018. Also see here. 

   Research featured in All about awe by Anna Mikulak, Observer, Vol.28, No.4 April, 2015.

   Interview with Sarah Mahoney for Life Reimagined: Why you need more awe and wonder.     What new findings about religion and spirituality mean for all of us. February 20, 2015.

Read more about our research in awe featured in:

   Psychology Today: Holiday Awe: Understanding and Cultivating Awe. December 23, 2011.                                            The Science of How Avatar is Awesome. January 19, 2010.

   National Affairs: Awe Activates Religious and Spiritual Feelings and Behavioral                                                             Intentions. November 02, 2011.

   The Atlantic: Awesomeness is Everything. January/February, 2017.

And more featured across the globe:

    Belgium: Université catholique de Louvain: Emotions et religion. July 29, 2008.

    Switzerland: FN/NF – Lives: Seeking Religious Ways of Coping May Constitute an                                                                                 Advantage. August 26, 2013.

More about Religion and Positive Psychology:

    Interview by Live Happy magazine on Religion and Positive Psychology. October, 2017

Wikipedia: Elevation, Spirituality