Spirituality boosts mental health during isolation and despair

Post-COVID, spirituality and faith helped people be resilient

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — A new Fetzer Institute study shows the positive effects of spiritual and religious engagement during COVID and similar times of challenge.

The study “What Does Spirituality Mean to Us? A Study of Spirituality in the United States Since COVID” sought to uncover shifts in the nation’s understanding of faith and spirituality in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was a two-year follow-up to Fetzer’s groundbreaking 2020 study of spirituality.

“The data produced through this project is like the Webb telescope, only instead of distant stars, it has revealed the interior lives of many Americans—how they think and feel about their relationship to a higher power,” said University of Notre Dame Professor David Campbell in the study’s introduction. “These innovative data show that spirituality is like a vaccine, inoculating people against isolation and despair.”

Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago at the end of the pandemic, the study surveyed 3,651 people from a probability-based sample of the U.S. English-speaking population ages 18 and over. The data was then compared with the Fetzer Institute’s 2020 study (“What Does Spirituality Mean to Us? A Study of Spirituality in the United States”) to determine whether people experienced changes in their faith and spiritual lives during times of challenge.

“We believe that faith and spirituality are essential to human flourishing. The Fetzer Institute funded these studies to learn about how individuals in the U.S. describe their relationship with the sacred and whether that changes when facing a global challenge like COVID,” noted Fetzer Institute President and CEO Bob Boisture.

Among the study’s findings:

• Engaging in prayer, art, and time in nature were the most frequent practices reported by the nearly two-thirds of interviewees who consider themselves both spiritual and religious.

• Survey participants reported that almost every spiritual activity they practiced supported their spiritual growth and mental well-being.

• Seven out of ten people said that being in nature gave them a sense of hope. Nearly three-quarters of people found prayer—however they define it—helped them endure difficulties.

The new study and its predecessor affirm—through interviews, focus groups, and two surveys—that spirituality is an inward and outward experience: it offers a sense of identity, offers tangible benefits, defines individual and group practices, infuses daily practices and experiences, and supports religious life, our search for meaning and purpose, and our connections to the transcendent.

Subtle but notable differences in findings between the 2020 and the post-COVID survey reflect that toward the latter stages of the pandemic, people experienced:

• a little more doubt in a higher power;

• a little less feeling of connection to a higher power, all of humanity, the natural world;

• a little less aspiration to be spiritual; and

• a little less engagement in spiritual and/or religious activities.

The new data show that nearly 60 percent of people reported one or more challenges during the COVID pandemic, such as the loss of a loved one, loss of employment, or financial setback—combined with fewer opportunities for spiritual or religious gatherings. These realities could explain some of the declines in religious and spiritual beliefs and practices during the pandemic, according to the report.

At the same time, the study found that people who reported improved mental and spiritual health after the pandemic noted expanded spiritual practices, experiences, and prosocial activity.

This study and its 2020 predecessor together affirm through interviews, focus groups, and two surveys that spirituality is an inward and outward experience—it offers a sense of identity, offers tangible benefits, defines individual and group practices, infuses daily practices and experiences, and supports our religious life, our search for meaning and purpose, and our connections to the transcendent.

“This report offers an in-depth look at how the ‘spiritual rubber meets the road’ during a challenging bend in our human journey,” noted Professor Pamela Ebstyne King of the Fuller Theological Seminary’s Thrive Center for Human Development, where she is executive director.

“The spiritual landscape painted through these findings includes transcendence, the sacred, love, ethics, relationships and belonging, service, science and nature, practices, worship, and well-being. In these times of radical change in traditional religious congregations and education, these findings offer great hope for spiritual vitality in the United States,” said Ebstyne King.”

Both studies are available at Survey data from both studies is archived at the American Religious Data Archive:

To design a study that was rigorous and would make a meaningful contribution to the field of spirituality and religion research, we brought together an advisory group whose backgrounds in research, theology, activism, and practice could help us navigate this rich and complex field:

• David Addiss, Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE), Task Force for Global Health

• Rebecca Bonhag, Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University

• Jason Burtt, Trinity Western University

• David Campbell, Packey Dee Professor of American Democracy, University of Notre Dame

• Richard Cowden, Human Flourishing Program, Harvard University

• Sung Kim, Fuller Theological Seminary.

• Pamela Ebstyne King, Thrive Center for Human Development, Fuller Theological Seminary

• Matthew T. Lee, Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University

• Paige Rice, Hattaway Communications

• Tom W. Smith, Center for the Study of Politics and Society, NORC 

• Roman Williams, Interfaith Photovoice

For more information, please contact: Fetzer Global Communications Director Roberto Lara Aranda, [email protected]. P: 269-353-0562


Following the mission of “helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world,” the Fetzer Institute seeks to catalyze a movement of organizations and funders applying spiritual solutions to social problems. Inspired by its founder, John E. Fetzer, the Fetzer Institute champions a global perspective that promotes understanding and new ways of knowing the sacred world. It fosters collective spiritual growth, aiming for transformed communities and societies where everyone can flourish. Learn more at and sign up for Fetzer’s newsletter at

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Religion News Service or Religion News Foundation.

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