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Posted: May 20, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

Moving Forward With Spirituality in Modern Medicine

(Editor's Note: A lot is happening in modern medicine that blends the benefits of spirituality with what we've known as "traditional" medicine. These three articles track some of the latest trends.)


Nurses and Chaplains: Spiritual Partners in Healing Modern Medicine

By Andrew J. Weaver, M.Th., Ph.D.

and Kevin J. Flannelly, Ph.D.

In a study tracking chaplain referrals over a three-year period at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, we found that a mere 3% came from doctors, while nurses made a whopping 83% of the referrals. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center reported similar findings.

Why? We analyzed the content of professional nursing journals and found them approximately 16 times more likely than major medical journals to consider the role of chaplains and other clergy in their research.

In a national sample of registered nurses, more than six out of 10 indicated that spiritual care was addressed in their training, and 90% thought such training valuable. Until very recently, medical schools rarely offered course work in religion or spirituality. Other studies show that rates of religious involvement among nurses are as high as or higher than those of the general population, while physicians tend to have lower levels of religious involvement than their patients.

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, emphasized spirituality as intrinsic to human experience, and modern nurses have clearly stayed true to her vision. Imagine what would happen if more doctors would take a cue from the nurses.


Expanding Horizons: Where Doctors Learn How Much They Don't Know

By Ellie Pierce

A new initiative at the Boston University School of Medicine is changing the way future doctors understand healing. There, a continuing medical education class on herbal medicine explores the pharmacology of herbal remedies, as well as their ritual dimensions. Local traditional healers, including a vodou priest and a santero from the Afro-Caribbean tradition of Santerķa, are among the guest lecturers. This course is one way the Boston Healing Landscape Project explores the landscape of religious and spiritual approaches to healing.

The project's director, Linda Barnes, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist and religion scholar, starts with the assumption that "All forms of healing -- even biomedical ones -- are culturally based and often shaped by religious world views." Barnes is studying the immigrant communities served by the Boston Medical Center, Boston University's teaching hospital. She and a team of researchers are documenting traditional healers, from Vietnamese Buddhist monks to African-American root doctors, from Pentecostal faith healers to Haitian mambos. Earlier waves of immigrants brought their own practices and practitioners, whether Irish charismatic priests, Chinese herbalists, or the saints' festivals in the Italian North End.

The project includes educational initiatives, such as a seminar on humanism in medicine developed by Ben Siegel for third-year students during their pediatrics rotation at the Boston Medical Center to discuss cultural, ethical, and spiritual questions. More recently, the project developed elective courses on the cultural formation of the physician and on ways various communities understand complementary and alternative medicine.

"Although there may be widely accepted ideas about health and spirituality," says Barnes, "we must not assume they are normative or that everyone understands them the same way -- because otherwise, we can't understand cultural difference." While some in the medical community are hesitant to add discussion of world religions and spirituality to the curriculum, Barnes says there is a natural connection between spirituality and healing: "Both have to do with understanding the nature of human suffering and affliction."


Psychology's New Handbook of Happiness

By T George Harris

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., one of the great psychological researchers of all time, first emerged at the University of Pennsylvania with his rigorous studies of learned helplessness. Frequent failure, he showed, tends to condition rats and people to give up, become depressed. Some ultimately succumb to "submissive death."

He then tested ways to help people fight this defeatist habit. In a memorable study of baseball champions, he found that such stars tend to explain their failures in a distinctive way that protects against repeated failures (take an optimism self test).

Businesses quickly adopted Seligman's "effectiveness training," especially insurance salesmen, whose days are filled with disheartening rejection -- failures.

When he accentuated the positive, Seligman got surprising results. One day he called me, much intrigued. A graduate student had just tested an experimental sample of born-again Christians. They proved to be uncommonly resistant to learned helplessness. In a midlife epiphany, after his second marriage, Seligman realized that his profession had long been mired in studies of frustration, aggression, depression, helplessness, and other dark-side habits. Why not focus on human strengths, if only for balance? Seligman, as a past American Psychological Association president, organized the positive psychology movement that rapidly inspired the discipline to research resiliency and other human strengths.

It was an idea whose time had come. Seligman's best-seller Authentic Happiness showed, through evidence from dozens of experiments, that true happiness arises from virtuous action. (His website provides a self-measure of 24 virtues, from honesty, courage, and creativity, to humor, spirituality, kindness, and hope.) Soon Seligman's positive psychology movement was piling up data on human strengths and virtues, to counterbalance a century of negatives from Freud and others. A more honest and balanced psychology, even the psychology of happiness, began to take shape.

Taking the next logical step, Seligman and Christopher Peterson have now authored a research-based 640-page Character Strengths and Virtues: A Classification and Handbook, published by A.P.A. Press and Oxford University Press. That's about as far from learned helplessness as one life can go!


T George Harris is former editor of Psychology Today, American Health, and The Harvard Business Review.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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