Spirituality: The new frontier in health research

Andrew Roly and Steve Davis are involved with humor therapy at Tree Tops aged care, New Farm. Picture: Chris Mccormack Source: Quest Newspapers

This post first appeared on ON LINE Opinion, Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate.

Humour therapy. Thigh-slapping, belly laughs and doubled-up in mirth with tears streaming down your cheeks type humour. Sounds a hoot – something I could do with on a Friday evening after a long working week.

We know that humour lightens the mood, whether we’re participating in school or a lecture, at church or a funeral – even in political debates! Clinical research is showing that humour is more than good fun, but actually affects our health in very good ways. Research shows that laughter stimulates the immune system, relieves pain, reduces the heart rate, benefits the respiratory system, relaxes the muscles, reduces stress, and helps promote a positive outlook and feeling of well-being. Humour that is based on caring and empathy also creates bonds between people, nourishes us spiritually, and heals. (www.clowndoctors.org.au)

Some hospitals and nursing homes are starting to realise the benefits to patients and are now keen to include ground-breaking humour therapy as part of their services. It’s good to see Queensland taking part in that progress (Quest News, 13/3/12, New Farm aged care facility in Queensland-first trial of humour therapy). We saw humour therapy in action on Compass last week, as comedian Jean-Paul Bell went about his days visiting nursing homes in the Sydney area. He is part of the world’s first large scale research project into the effects of humour therapy on older people with dementia, and with Australia experiencing a rapidly growing ageing population, in the next 40 years the number of people over 85 is expected to quadruple from 0.4 to 1.8 million – it’s no laughing matter, as the ABC website suggests.

It’s encouraging that the media are alerting the public to measures that research shows can ‘stave off’ dementia – like eating fruit and vegetables, drinking water, playing memory games like crosswords, exercising and having an active social life (body+soul, How to prevent dementia, 11/3/12) . However, it seems to me that while all of the above are normal activities that we just can’t do without as human beings, something more is needed….

Helpful as these suggestions are, a new or better view of ourselves as we grow older may be ‘just the ticket’. “There are different views of ageing in our society. One view sees ageing as a period of physical decline that includes illness and disability ….. a second view is of ‘successful ageing’”. A research report by Elizabeth B MacKinlay and Corinne Trevitt published in The Medical Journal of Australia proposes a third or alternative view – seeing ageing as a ‘spiritual journey’. They conclude that “although we live in a largely secular society, spiritual care should not be seen as an ‘optional extra’ for older people”.

So where should health and medical research be heading? Melissa Sweet, editor of Croakey, writes that “We have a great opportunity to make a submission to the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research this month – to influence and improve the next decade of health and medical research”. Scientific research will guide most decisions on best practice in healthcare for all age groups into the future, and further research into the effects of spirituality and prayer on health seems advisable and forward-looking during this important stage of human development.

Maybe the human race is more on ‘the same page’ about healthcare than we thought. Many young people like Miley Cyrus cannot accept a blind faith approach to existence, and intelligently conclude along with Einstein that ‘Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind”. Is it possible to unite the two approaches to knowledge … marry scientific methodology with Christian inspiration and wisdom?   Separately, science and Christianity are like a match and a stick of dynamite … their potential underutilized. Together, watch out. There is an explosion of insight …. and health.

My experience with prayer that acknowledges the spiritual and scientific laws of an all-good and all-powerful being who is infinite Love and Truth is that it brings healing. Healing not just to the pain, injury or illness I’ve been experiencing at the time, but also to every aspect of my life – healing that permeates every fibre of my being.

The World Health Organisation’s 2005 paper stating that “health needs to be understood as an inclusive concept …. encompassing spiritual wellbeing” (The Bangkok Charter for Health Promotion in a Globalized World, Geneva) should be the basis for further research into the effects of spirituality on diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as other human maladies; and into contemplation of the idea that spirituality and prayer may well be essential to perfect health.


  1. Anita Byth says

    I find that quote from World Health Organisation’s 2005 paper very interesting … “health needs to be understood as an inclusive concept …. encompassing spiritual wellbeing”. The idea of health being a ‘concept’ is really interesting. If I change my ‘concept’ of myself from being unhappy, useless or painful to a ‘concept’ of myself as happy, useful and painless this is a ‘healthy concept’ of myself and, a ‘spiritual concept’. Like you, Kay, I’ve found that putting weight to these spiritual concepts of myself brings changes in my life for the better. It’s not positive thinking, it’s much better. It’s relying on the underlying truth in Genesis in the Bible that “man is made in the image and likeness of God” and is “very good”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *