How Diverse Spiritual Communities Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

How Diverse Spiritual Communities Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Chelsea Langston Bombino, January 6, 2017

Every January 1st, many individuals make New Year’s resolutions. Common New Year’s resolutions include goals to lose weight and get fit, abstain from alcohol or other substances, save money, volunteer more in the community, and reduce stress. Yet although these resolutions are all focused on an individual changing his or her own personal actions, research has shown that goals such as this have the best chances for success when individuals have a community of support, accountability, and empathy along the journey.

Groups and communities organized around a faith-based framework, or containing a spiritual element, may give people an additional boost in sticking to their New Year’s resolutions. Why? Because entities structured towards a transcendent purpose tend to engage individual participants towards an ends greater than their own self-fulfillment.

Communities which have religious and/or spiritual beliefs and practices imprinted into their DNA tend to inspire people to change their actions not only for surface-level or temporal gratification. These spiritually-shaped organizations have the capacity to facilitate individuals’ understanding of how the choices they make in their daily lives connect to a divine creative being or sacred purpose. Consider how diverse spiritual institutions aid people to achieve their goals.

Improving Physical Health

Perhaps the most common New Year’s resolution is losing weight and getting physically fit.  Every year, millions of Americans make goals to lose 20 pounds, join a gym, or eat more vegetables. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), social support found through formal groups designed to provide accountability in weight loss contributed to better results.  The APA site states: “programs that rely on group support, discussions about exercise and diet and assignments, such as keeping a food diary, can be a good choice.”  The APA cites a study where researchers compared the effectiveness of Weight Watchers, with built in social supports, versus a self-guided approach. The APA states: “The researchers found that the Weight Watchers participants lost more than three times the pounds of the self-help group the first year. On average, the Weight Watchers group lost almost 10 pounds compared to three pounds in the self-help group.” Moreover, although both groups regained some weight over time, only the Weight Watchers group kept some of it off.

Many traditional houses of worship provide support groups for congregants interested in weight loss.  One popular approach in some Christian communities over the past few years has been adopted from a ‘Daniel Fast.’ This diet is based on the Daniel 1:8, which states: “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank…” In the biblical account, Daniel and his men only ate vegetables for 10 days and became revitalized. In an article in the Atlantic discussing the benefits of engaging in a Daniel-type diet, registered dietician Leslie Bonci discusses the benefits of tapping into a divine source for inspiration: “There has to be some other motivation. If that motivation is a higher power, fine.” The article notes how for followers of the Daniel diet, the built-in support network of the church serves the same role as Weight Watchers in the study mentioned above: “the Church community acts as a kind of reinforcement mechanism.”

Although the gym remains a perennial favorite for those resolute on keeping their resolutions, some are turning to communities for body movement that also have an element of transcendent connection. Soul Yoga and Wellness in Charleston, S.C., is just one such example of a community of individuals, with individual goals, coming together to integrate elements of spiritual growth into disciplines of the mind and body.  This studio’s co-owner, Jennifer Hess Mitchell, explains the soul-connection of this community: “Most people have a loss of connection to themselves. Many people are disconnected from their physical bodies, so we use connection with the physical body as a tool to tap into other things. People feel connected to our mission and are looking for that spiritual component.”

The proliferation of yoga studios and the resulting consumer demand for practicing yoga in recent years speaks to individuals’ desires to engage in a physical activity that taps into elements beyond the physical world.  As Hess Mitchell states regarding the inspiration for her studio’s name: “Naming my first studio “Soul” is a really powerful part of what we are doing: opening up and wanting people to see each other deeply beyond their physical being.”

Although some iterations of yoga have been stripped of some of their original spiritual underpinnings to appeal to a more secular, Western market in recent years, this ancient, sacred practice’s rise in popularity cannot be overlooked as an anomaly.  Regardless of individuals’ personal opinions about the practice of yoga, one can recognize the strong origins and undercurrents of an ancient religious practice, of a transcendent higher purpose, that run through modern yoga classes.

Improving Mental Health

Many Americans find themselves constantly stressed and fighting off bouts of anxiety and depression.  In the classic children’s favorite “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown,” Charlie Brown seeks out Lucy at her psychiatric help booth (where she charges five cents for her expert advice) to express that he feels depressed and out of touch with the Christmas season.  Charlie says: “I feel depressed. I know I should be happy, but I am not.” After Lucy narrows down Charlie Brown’s fears to pantophobia (fear of everything), he continues explaining his problems: “Actually, Lucy, my trouble is Christmas. I just don’t understand it. Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down.” At this, Lucy provides a solution that is elegant in its simplicity and straightforwardness: “You need involvement.  You need to get involved in some real Christmas project. How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?” At this suggestion, Charlie Brown instantly perks up.  He asks if she really wants to include him, to which Lucy responds: “We need a director.  You need involvement.”

Charlie Brown goes on to get involved in the Christmas play and ends up feeling like part of a community with a common purpose: one which ultimately brings clarity to him about the real meaning of Christmas as Linus reads Luke 2:8-14 on stage. This example, lying dormant for many of us in the recesses of our childhood memories, demonstrates the transformational capacity of simply engaging in a community toward common ends. Charlie Brown sets out to improve his mood and his whole orientation to the Christmas season and finds his answer in simply participating in a community whose purposes are oriented to those same ends, in this case, through the production of a Christmas play.

Beyond animated exemplars, flesh and blood human beings also have seen more effective results in reducing stress and improving mental health when they have decided to engage in communities, particularly in groups with an animating spiritual paradigm.  As a recent article in the Adventist Review reveals: “A systematic review of research provides support that religious involvement is related to lower rates of depression. People who are actively involved in religious practices tend to have fewer symptoms of depression.” Incorporating spiritual practices into addressing mental health challenges, from depression to anxiety to substance use problems, has yielded positive results with other populations, as well.

In a study exploring the effectiveness of integrating Native American spiritual modalities into other Western treatment options, providers viewed the usage of Native American ceremonies and rituals as helpful to the healing of their clients. The study explored bi-modal methods integrating Western treatment, which traditionally emphasizes the individual, with Native American spiritual practices, which focus on one’s connection with the community.  The study describes these integrative recovery programs as: “[including] sweat ceremonies, talking circles, prayers, smudging, and sessions with recognized spiritual healers and are combined with Western mainstream practices, such as group therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.” The study explained the positive possible outcomes of integrating Native American spiritual practices in this way: “Staff described several types of roles that traditional [Native American spiritual] healing plays in the treatment process, including the development of coping skills, the provision of a daily structure, or a means to reconnect with their Native ethnicity.”

Resolving to Get Involved

As these examples demonstrate, faith-shaped and spiritually-based communities and organizations often provide the emotional, physical, and spiritual infrastructure necessary to lay a solid foundation for success with the most common of goals for our own self-improvement.  In a variety of different contexts, from weight-loss to regaining one’s mental well-being, engagement in a supportive, spiritual community is a vital to long-term success for most humans.  This should not be surprising.  We are social beings with the capacity to ask transcendent questions about what it means to be human, what our life’s purpose is, and how we find our place in the world.  And because we live in a diverse society where individuals come to a wide spectrum of answers to such transcendent questions, we need to create space for different sacred communities and faith-shaped organizations with different ideas about how to be in the world to thrive.

“You need involvement,” as Lucy would say.  We all need involvement in local ecosystems where we can provide nourishment and be nourished, where we can give and receive grace and accountability in equal measure, where we can figure out how our own individual life is interconnected with the lives and the world around us.  If losing 10 pounds or exercising for an hour a day or resolving to be happier seem like insurmountable, unattainable resolutions, you might simply start with one resolution: deeper involvement in a spiritual community with a particular purpose toward creating mutual wellbeing for all those involved.