Summary: Addressing existential and spiritual questions a person may have positive implications for inner peace and overall health.
Source: University of Southern Denmark
Do you ever think about what happens when we die, whether we have a soul, or what the meaning of life is? This – and much more – is what new research is shedding light on.
In 2021, more than 100,000 Danes were invited to participate in the largest questionnaire survey ever conducted on spiritual and existential needs.
They were asked 20 questions, all related to these topics. Over 80 percent of those who responded reported experiencing at least one strong or very strong spiritual need in the past month.
The first study based on the survey has just been published in Lancet Regional Health – Europe.
“We live in a society where religion and spirituality are taboo and something we rarely talk about with each other. What we believe in, why we are here, what happens when we die. And we might be led to believe that it’s not important, or something we shouldn’t concern ourselves with in the healthcare system. But our study convincingly shows that these topics are important to Danes,” says Tobias Anker Stripp, a medical doctor and PhD student who is the lead author of the study.
In the study, participants were asked about their need for finding inner peace and doing something for others, with these two topics being the most highly valued.
“Experiencing inner peace and giving something of oneself to others are classic existential or spiritual needs. And even though we don’t always verbalize it that way, most of us intuitively feel that this is important. About one-fifth of Danes have also reported a religious need – that is, a need directly related to belief in something greater. All of this we have now shown in numbers.
“When you think about how healthy it is to believe in something greater and experience meaning in life, I think it’s important that we as healthcare professionals are interested in whether our patients have needs in these areas that we can address, especially when dealing with serious illness. Biomedical treatment is not enough. We must remember that we humans are more than just our physical bodies,” says Tobias Anker Stripp.
In the study, participants were asked about their need for finding inner peace and doing something for others, with these two topics being the most highly valued. Image is in the public domain
Jens Søndergaard, who is a professor in the Research Unit for General Practice and a practicing physician, agrees with this.
“This study supports the holistic approach that general practice sees as central and has been educating practicing physicians in for years. This approach should be disseminated and supported by the entire healthcare system.
“It is also a shift in the right direction for medical research that a respected journal like The Lancet addresses this topic, which is otherwise atypical,” he believes.
Professor Niels Christian Hvidt is the last author of the article and the one who initiated the study several years ago. He conducts research specifically on the care of existential and spiritual needs that the study uncovers. He views the feedback from practitioners as highly encouraging, since:
-Danes do not talk much about their beliefs and personal values and have a low degree of religious practice. But as the study shows, we in Denmark have the same needs for inner peace, meaning, faith, and hope as seen in more religious countries.
“Therefore, the study raises the question of how we can become better at talking about these needs, also in the healthcare system, especially when life gets tough, because it can have a direct impact on how we face life and the challenges it may bring us. “
About the study
- 106,000 Danes received the survey in their e-box. 26,678 participated (25.6%).
- Of the included participants, 19,507 (81.9%) reported at least one strong or very strong spiritual need in the past month.
- Danes scored highest on the need for inner peace, followed by generativity, then existential needs, and finally religious needs.
- Being affiliated with a religious or spiritual practice, regularly meditating or praying, and self-reported low health, low life satisfaction, or low well-being increased the likelihood of having spiritual needs.
Spiritual needs in Denmark: a population-based cross-sectional survey linked to Danish national registers
Spiritual aspects of the human condition may give rise to spiritual pain and suffering, especially in the face of illness or difficult life situations. A growing volume of research documents the effects of religiosity, spirituality, meaning, and purpose on health. In supposedly secular societies, however, spiritual matters are rarely addressed in healthcare. This is the first large scale study to examine spiritual needs in Danish culture, and the largest study on spiritual needs to date.
A population-based sample of 104,137 adult (≥18 yrs) Danes were surveyed cross-sectionally (the EXICODE study) and responses were linked to data from Danish national registers. The primary outcome was spiritual needs in four dimensions: religious, existential, generativity, and inner peace. Logistic regression models were fitted to examine the relationship between participant characteristics and spiritual needs.
A total of 26,678 participants responded to the survey (25.6%). Of included participants 19,507 (81.9%) reported at least one strong or very strong spiritual need in the past month. The Danes scored highest on inner peace needs, followed by generativity, then existential, and lastly, religious needs. Affiliating as religious or spiritual, regularly meditating or praying, or reporting low health, low life satisfaction, or low well-being increased the odds of having spiritual needs.
This study demonstrated that spiritual needs are common among Danes. These findings have important implications for public health policies and clinical care. Care for the spiritual dimension of health is warranted as part of holistic, person-centered care in what we term ‘post-secular’ societies. Future research should inform how spiritual needs might be addressed in healthy and diseased populations in Denmark and other European countries and the clinical effectiveness of such interventions.
The paper was supported by the Danish Cancer Society (R247-A14755), The Jascha Foundation (ID 3610), The Danish Lung Foundation, AgeCare, and the University of Southern Denmark.