For many people, spirituality underlies all that they do each day. Spirituality is the ground in which they are rooted as they parent their children, work at their job, visit with friends and greet acquaintances. It may be an outwardly obvious spirituality, something that calls them to volunteer in their community or serve their church. Or it maybe a quiet thing, an inner sense of peace and serenity, a trust in life, a strength of conviction. No matter how it shows up, medical research tells us that attention to spirituality may bring a bonus: better health.

What is spirituality? When I talk about spirituality, I’m talking about having a belief system that focuses on intangible elements or forces that add vitality and meaning to your life and life’s events. Believing in those intangible elements or forces is not enough, though. You must not only believe, but you must personally experience those intangible forces adding meaning to your life.

Spirituality is not a concept limited to any one religion or denomination. It’s not even linked, necessarily, to worship in a church or belief in a certain god. Regardless of occupation, age, color or religious affiliation, anyone can discover spirituality and benefit from it.

Medical science is finding more and more evidence of those benefits. Study after study supports the notion that spirituality may have a positive effect on health.

To be accurate, many of those studies look at participation in religious activities, not strictly spirituality. But from those studies, we’ve learned that regular attendees of religious services are likely to have lower blood pressure than those who attend less frequently or not at all. We’ve seen that elderly people who regularly attend church have healthier immune system than those who don’t. Another study found that people 60 years old and older who attended church weekly or more often were significantly less likely in the previous year to have been admitted to the hospital.

These studies are scientifically valid, but still don’t tell the whole story. Was it the spirituality inherent in their religion that kept these people healthier, or was it the social support they received by being part of a church community? Were they healthier because church helped them discover meaning in their lives, or because their religion or church community discouraged use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs? Or was it simply that healthier people are able get up and go to church on a weekly basis, while people in poorer health remain home?

While these studies are indicators of the benefits of spirituality, in my mind the stronger evidence comes from medical research into the power of prayer. There have been quite a number of studies in this area, but perhaps the most intriguing work has been done by Mitchell Krucoff, M.D., and Suzanne Crater, N.P., at Duke University’s Medical Center. Krucoff and Carter spoke in Oklahoma City as guests of INTEGRIS Mental Health about two years ago.

In their study, Krucoff and Crater looked at heart disease patients. The level of each patient’s spirituality was determined through surveys and other assessment tools. Some patients received only standard medical therapy. Others received standard therapy along with therapies such as healing touch, stress relaxation and guided imagery. A final group of patients (who also received the standard therapy) were prayed for by diverse prayer groups – Carmelite nuns near Baltimore, Baptists in North Carolina, Buddhist monks in Paris and Nepal, etc. None of these people knew there were special prayer groups saying prayers for their recovery.

Compared to the standard therapy group, the prayer group experienced a 50 percent reduction of every adverse outcome. Broken down even further, the results were equally interesting. Patients strongly rooted in a spiritual community did well, regardless of the therapy they received. Patients not rooted in a spiritual community had better outcomes when they were prayed for than when they were not. Patients who prayed on their own at least once a day or who felt their spirituality was important in their daily lives had better outcomes when receiving healing touch, stress relaxation and guided imagery than when receiving only standard therapy.

Prayer is a spiritual practice. It is intangible. And yet we are learning that when you offer prayers, or even when others pray for you without your knowledge, there are health benefits.

How can you get in touch with your spirituality?

First, make a conscious effort to tune into spirituality. In the air all around you right now, there are signals from television stations. To you, they are intangible. You cannot hear, see or feel any of them – unless you turn on your TV, a mechanism for tuning in the signals. For spirituality, too, you must have the capacity to tune in. You must have openness and willingness to look into seemingly intangible processes.

Second, you must become more aware of the readily observable effects of spirituality. Love is intangible, but you know it when you feel it. Hope is intangible, but it can profoundly and positively affect the course of a person’s illness. Trust is intangible, but living out of a sense of trust can calm your anxieties, lower your blood pressure and help you feel inner peace and serenity. Love, hope and trust are components of spirituality, and their effects are there for you to see and feel.

Third, live out your spirituality. Mother Theresa once said that God comes to us in the form of suffering human beings. Toward people you know who are in physical or emotional pain, practice kindness and compassion. Put yourself in their shoes, understand what they think and feel, and act accordingly.

Fourth, marvel at creation. A movie or television show might bore you if you watch it over and over, but watching a sunset or viewing a range of snow-covered mountains does not. Those are God’s creations, not ours. When you wonder at the majesty and complexity of a mountain stream, flowers or stars, you are engaged in a very spiritual act.

As is the case with everyone, your life will have its share of difficulties. Through spirituality, you can increase the chances that you will come through them with health and hope intact.