Spirituality, Religion, and Substance Coping as Regulators of Emotions and Meaning Making: Different Effects on Pain and Joy

Article excerpt

This study addresses whether aspects of spirituality and religion predict psychological and emotional well-being in a general population over and above personality and coping through the use of drugs or alcohol. Results are consistent with self-control theory and positive psychology approaches.


Substance abuse and criminal behavior clearly represent quintessential features of self-regulation failure. Outside of these extreme examples of self-regulation failure, regulating one's mood drives a significant portion of substance coping. On the basis of the principle that behavior pursues emotion, humans anticipate the pleasant, immediate effects of these substances whether at the end of a hard day's work, as a primer for social conversation, or to regulate chronic physical or mental health pain. At the other end of the self-regulation spectrum, alcohol use is related to substantial percentages of criminal acts, such as homicide and sexual assault. Self-control theory (SCT; Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994) defines problematic use of substances as a form of misregulation. That is, people inadvertently choose a method that could result in even greater self-control loss as well as sabotaging the original goal of improving one's mood.

In the years since SCT emerged, numerous studies have verified its general principles (Baumeister & Exline, 1999; Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). Despite its potential, however, the model does not seem to have made a practical impact in substance abuse clinical settings. It has remained mostly a model for understanding self-regulation failure, with less research devoted to developing interventions based on the model. SCT has potential for the addictions field in that many aspects of religion and spirituality support self-regulation (Geyer & Baumeister, 2005; Watts, 2007).

The many facets of SCT are beyond the scope of this article, but it is possible to test some predictions from the model to determine its consistency with outcomes tied to religious beliefs and practices as well as to substance coping. The specific issue in question is whether substance coping is a form of misregulation so that, despite a wish to promote happiness and psychological well-being, substance coping diminishes them. A second question arises from the link between self-control and religion and spirituality. Will religion and spirituality promote happiness and positive psychological functioning in themselves, and do they predict outcomes independently of substance coping?

For these reasons, the following hypotheses have both conceptual and practical implications for understanding the relationships between psychological well-being, substance coping, and religion and spirituality. First, forms of religion and spirituality that emphasize the benevolence of God, the Creator, or a higher power will be associated with positive emotions and measures of psychological well-being (Pargament, 1997; Pargament, Smith, Koenig, & Perez, 1998). Second, substance coping, as a form of misregulation of the sell will be associated with negative emotions and psychological dissatisfaction. Third, controlling for substance abuse, positive religion and spirituality will make an independent contribution, maintaining positive associations with levels of psychological and emotional well-being (Ciarrocchi & Deneke, 2004). Fourth, spiritual struggles will contribute independently over and above substance coping, maintaining positive associations with negative emotion and psychological dissatisfaction. Finally, we explore whether a person's self-designation as being religious or spiritual predicts positive emotional well-being and psychological maturity (Zinnbauer, Pargament, & Scott, 1999) and whether these designations make an independent contribution over and above the propensity to cope by using substances.

Research in positive psychology models has determined that religion and spirituality make independent contributions to subjective wellbeing, but no research to date has directly tested their relationship with substance coping. …