UConn prof delves into spirituality in daily life

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – University of Connecticut Professor Bradley Wright has all types of questions for his research: Did you pray in the last 24 hours? To what extent are you feeling nurtured or angry with God? Do you feel a sense of purpose right now?

And he’d like the answers in real time, launching a website that sends texts to smartphones that it’s time for participants to take the twice-daily survey. It’s part of an ambitious look by Wright and other researchers into the role of spirituality in the daily lives of Americans and its links to well-being.

Wright is hoping the effort will shed light on a wide range of issues: Do people feel closer to God or more distant after they’re on Facebook? How did attending church service affect them? Does spirituality help with social isolation? Does amount of sleep affect spiritual awareness?

“In general I think that over the coming years this will produce a number of findings that I think will help redefine how we understand day-to-day spirituality,” Wright said.

Wright, an associate professor of sociology who wrote the 2010 book “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites... and Other Lies You’ve Been Told,” is overseeing www.soulPulse.org to gather data for researchers to study. Participants fill out brief questionnaires for two weeks, answering a range of questions on health to volunteer work at church or a charity.

“It just opens a whole new category of data about spirituality, personal growth, personal characteristics that people value,” Wright said. “We’re giving people a chance to take a two-week snapshot of their life. This is just an interesting way for people to learn about themselves.”

Kyndria Brown, a 50-year-old bookkeeper from Madison, Conn., who participated in the study, said she learned that she thought more about God when she was alone and feeling sad. “But when I was with other people I tended to not think in a spiritual way,” she said.

Brown, who is Episcopalian, said participating in the project prompted deeper questions about her spirituality, admitting that is scary but ultimately rewarding.

“It makes you question the very premise of why you’ve chosen to be spiritual,” she said. “It’s forcing me to face myself and I appreciate that kind of a challenge. This program was pivotal in making me explore that concept.”

Many studies have been conducted of Americans’ religious and spiritual beliefs and their effects on health and other matters, but Wright said they mainly rely on one-time surveys, lab experiments and personal observations. He said SoulPulse is the first to use to use cellphones to measure spirituality as it unfolds over time in natural settings.

People are often categorized as believing in God or not, or being spiritual or not, “but it could be that people’s spiritual attitudes and beliefs vary from day to day,” Wright said.

Wright himself was raised Catholic, then became involved in a charismatic church and now calls himself a Catholic-liturgical-charismatic evangelical.

The effort is in line with a Christian tradition of being intently reflective throughout the day about spirituality, said Joseph Curran, an associate professor of religion at Misericordia University. He noted that the Jesuits have a daily examination of conscience.

“It’s kind of like an electronic version of that,” Curran said. “I think it’s terrific. I’m fascinated to see what the results are.”

The approach reflects a creative way people are using technology to improve themselves in a spiritual way, said Clint Jenkin, vice president of research for the Barna Group, which specializes in understanding faith and culture. Faith was traditionally defined by being part of a larger group, he said.

“Now our faith is being more defined by things that we do on our own,” Jenkin said. “I think this kind of shows that side of spirituality or that individualistic way of living out our faith.”

While Wright is the principle investigator, a dozen other researchers and experts are involved in the initiative ranging from Stanford Medical School to pastors and a psychologist. The study is privately funded and relies on volunteers, Wright said.

Participants are recruited through social media, news sites and word of mouth. They don’t need to be religious and for sampling purposes, atheists and agnostics are actively recruited, Wright said.

Researchers will have access to the data but names are removed and responses are confidential. Organizers plan to periodically publish reports summarizing their findings.

The results so far from about 250 people are showing people feel much more spiritual when they’re walking, out in nature and at a religious service and the least spiritual when they’re watching television or on the computer, he said.

The real-time nature of the approach quickly became apparent. One of the lowest scores for spiritual awareness came from a parent watching the trouncing of her son’s soccer team

Keith Anderson, a video assistant at UConn, was feeling especially grateful to God when he received a text for the survey as he waited in line to meet President Obama after UConn women won the national basketball championship last year.

“I just thought that was really amusing,” Anderson said.