Back in 2003 a paper was published that examined the effects of two different kinds of spirituality on psychosocial functioning in old age. The study, Religiousness, spirituality, and psychosocial functioning in late adulthood: Findings from a longitudinal study (link accesses the pdf), used life course data from a longitudinal research project done by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkely. The results reflected a few things that seem intuitively obvious, but found other things that some might find surprising.
The types of spiritual experience they measured were what they termed “dwellers” and “seekers”. From the paper:
Religious dwellers tend to accept traditional forms of religious authority; they inhabit a space created for them by established religious institutions and relate to the sacred through prayer and communal worship.
By contrast, for spritual seekers individual autonomy takes precedence over external authority and the hold of tradition-centered religious doctrines. Spiritual seekers are explorers who create their own space by typically borrowing elements from various religious and mythical traditions, and they frequently blend participation in institutionalized Western religion with Eastern practices.
…What differentiates dwellers and seekers is not the seriousness of effort to incorporate the sacred in their lives but their relation to religious authority and tradition.
Much is known about Dwellers. They have better intergenerational family interactions, large supportive social networks, and are much more likely than others to engage in voluntary community caregiving activies.
By contrast little is known about the late life psychological functioning of Seekers. Some sociologists, and not just dweller sociologists, have hypothesized that the self-referential emphasis of spiritual seekers is evidence of “excessively narcissistic self-absorption” that may in fact undermine the community obligations promoted by institutionalized religions.
Fortunately for those of us who live in both worlds, that turned out not to be the case. What emerged instead was something positive for both groups, something that hints at fertile ground for future research now that exploration of alternative spiritual lifestyles has become more common in Western culture.