McKinsey Health Institute

In search of self and something bigger: A spiritual health exploration

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At a glance

  • Spiritual health encompasses having meaning in one’s life, a sense of connection to something larger than oneself, and a sense of purpose. Finding this meaning is associated with strong mental, social, and physical health.
  • While assessment of spiritual health ranges widely across ages and locations, McKinsey Health Institute’s Global Gen Z Survey in 26 countries found that across generational cohorts the vast majority of respondents said spiritual health is “somewhat” to “extremely” important to them.
  • Social, public, and private stakeholders can explore ways to help people find purpose and space to reflect on their lives. This includes employers seeking to help individuals find meaning in their work.

In McKinsey Health Institute’s (MHI’s) vision of a modern understanding of health, spiritual health is not a “nice to have” but a core dimension, along with physical, mental, and social health. But spiritual health can be hard to define. For many, it invokes a variety of feelings. There are those who see it as inseparable from religion, as well as those who associate it with following an internal moral compass or finding peace and calm through meditation. While those feelings can overlap, MHI’s concept of spiritual health1Adding years to life and life to years, McKinsey Health Institute, March 2022. For more, see S. K. Chaturvedi, Neera Dhar, and Deoki Nandan, “Spiritual health, the fourth dimension: A public health perspective,” WHO South-East Asia Journal of Public Health, January 2013, Volume 2, Number 1; Francesco Chirico, “Spiritual well-being in the 21st century: It is time to review the current WHO’s health definition,” Journal of Health and Social Sciences, March 2016, Volume 1, Number 1; Christina M. Puchalski, “Integrating spirituality into patient care: An essential element of person-centered care,” Polish Archives of Internal Medicine, September 2013, Volume 123, Number 9; Giancarlo Lucchetti et al., “Spirituality and health in the curricula of medical schools in Brazil,” BMC Medical Education, August 2012, Volume 12, Number 78; South-East Asia Advisory Committee on Medical Research, “Spiritual aspects of health: Global strategy for health for all by the year 2000,” World Health Organization, March 1984. is not necessarily tied to religious beliefs but rather to meaning in one’s life, a broad sense of connection to something larger than oneself, and a strong sense of purpose. These can be found within a community, a calling, a form of divinity, the ability to feel rooted and mindful in the present moment, or all of the above. And those who are able to develop their spiritual health often see positive overlaps with the other dimensions of health.

However, there are differences between generations as to how they report spiritual health. MHI’s recent Global Gen Z Survey—a cross-generational survey that oversampled Gen Zers in order to yield insight into the generation, while still sampling all other generations for comparison purposes—highlights the complexity of how spiritual health is perceived and practiced around the world and the way spiritual health affects overall well-being.2 Among 41,000 respondents across generational cohorts in 26 countries, the vast majority said spiritual health is “somewhat” to “extremely important” to them (see sidebar, “Methodology”). This finding is similar to those of previous MHI surveys. This survey also highlights the varying global perspectives regarding the importance of spiritual health. More than 80 percent of respondents in Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Vietnam said spiritual health was very or extremely important, for instance, compared with less than 45 percent of respondents in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Understanding how much spiritual health varies in level of importance could create better understanding in a globalized world, including for those working in the social, public, or private sector.

This is also an area with potential for more research: an MHI analysis found that about 75 percent of studies related to health primarily measure physical health, while just 12 percent measure mental health, 6 percent social health, and 1 percent spiritual health.3Adding years to life and life to years, McKinsey Health Institute, March 29, 2022. MHI has conducted multiple global surveys to understand how individuals perceive the four dimensions of health and what gaps exist. In a recent MHI survey of employees, for example, more than half of respondents across 30 countries reported positive overall holistic health, but respondents reported the lowest proportion of positive scores when it came to spiritual health. This may indicate that some employees, regardless of country, may be struggling to integrate meaning into their lives and work, which could, in turn, affect their physical, mental, and social health.

The series of insights below illustrate what cross-generational respondents said about their spiritual health in the Global Gen Z Survey, how to better understand the differences based on age and country, and how everyone has a role to play in helping people have lives with purpose. This can begin by understanding how spiritual health intersects with other dimensions. MHI highlights Gen Z specifically because of the many challenges young people face in the transition to adulthood, and how insights into aspects of health can lead to better resilience.

While the Gen Zers who have good spiritual health appear to be doing well in all dimensions, those with poor spiritual health may be struggling (Exhibit 1). Individuals reporting poor spiritual health were up to about four times less likely to say they had good or very good mental health than those reporting neutral or good spiritual health. In addition, those with poor spiritual health were about two times less likely to report good social or physical health.

Among Gen Z, there is a positive association between spiritual health and other dimensions of health.

The Gen Z survey is not the only research being done to find out how spiritual health can overlap with other dimensions. Spiritual health has been correlated with multiple dimensions of quality of life in other studies,4 and there has been growing discussion on the role of spiritual health in holistic medical care.5 This can include the role of spiritual beliefs in mental health, with some studies finding that higher spirituality scores correlated with fewer depressive symptoms or that spiritual health and perceived social support is associated with less death anxiety in the elderly.6

Other studies have found that spiritual and physical health are strongly connected for some patients, with a 2011 US study finding that 41 percent of patients desired a discussion of religious and/or spiritual concerns while hospitalized.7 There is also some evidence of the connection between spiritual, social, and mental well-being, with a 2017 study finding that seniors in Iran who had spiritual behaviors and good social health were more likely to have self-care capacity.8

Overall, Gen Z respondents reported challenges with spiritual health at a higher rate than non–Gen Z respondents; about three times as many Gen Zers reported poor spiritual health as did baby boomers.9Gen Z mental health: The impact of tech and social media,” McKinsey Health Institute, April 28, 2023. Gen Zers with poor mental health were three times more likely to report a lack of meaning in their lives than those with good mental health (Exhibit 2). And while Gen Z reports struggling the most with spiritual health, it’s not the only generation where spiritual and mental health are connected: non–Gen Z respondents with poor mental health were more than four times more likely to report a lack of meaning in their lives, compared with those with good mental health.

Gen Z respondents with poor mental health were less likely to say they had meaning in their life.

While the survey findings across countries affirmed that those with lower spiritual health had lower mental health scores, the perception of that connection varies by country. Eighty-eight percent of respondents in Indonesia, for instance, said positive spiritual health helped their mental health, while only 15 percent of respondents in Japan agreed with that sentiment.10 That means it may be harder in certain countries to make the case that investment in better spiritual health can improve mental health.

By encompassing 26 countries, the Global Gen Z Survey offers insight into distinct regional differences in the way individuals perceive spiritual health (Exhibit 3). Respondents in higher-income economies, for example, were substantially less likely than those in lower- or lower-middle-income economies to indicate spiritual health was “extremely important” to them (27 versus 43 percent).


While spiritual health is not confined to religion, these complex differences around the world sometimes correlate with religious observance. Under half of respondents in France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Sweden, for instance, said spiritual health was extremely or very important to them, compared with 85 percent of respondents in Nigeria. But it’s relevant to remember that many evaluate their spiritual health outside of traditional religion: in 21 of the 26 countries surveyed, the majority of respondents in each country said spiritual health is important to them, while far fewer reported regularly practicing religious habits, such as going to a faith-based service.

Recent Pew research supports this idea that there is a middle ground between the absence of spiritual beliefs and full religious or spiritual practice, finding that almost a third of US respondents say they are atheists (17 percent), agnostic (20 percent) or list “nothing in particular” (63 percent). Almost half of “religious nones” said their reasons relate to disliking religious organizations, and a third gave a reason related to negative experiences with those who described themselves as religious. Yet in this group, almost half said spirituality is important or that they considered themselves spiritual.11

By exploring the differences in spiritual health’s importance across countries or regions and by understanding the varying feelings on religion, organizations and individuals could potentially have a deeper understanding of how to advance holistic health.

This can invite conversation within social, public, and private settings on factors that influence spiritual health. For example, asking someone, “What ways do you find purpose in your life?” or “How are you helping others find meaning?” can yield fruitful discussions.

While finding pathways to pursue individual spiritual health is important across generations, our data suggest that this is especially important for Gen Z (Exhibit 4). When surveyed, Gen Z was the least likely to endorse positive statements about spiritual health: over a third of respondents reported a lack of meaning in their lives. Gen Zers were also the least likely to report finding a sense of purpose in their work and having personal beliefs that give them the strength to face difficulties. One potential explanation is that individuals in this phase of life may still be actively developing their sense of purpose, which lends credence to supporting younger generations in this important element of their health.

Based on statements about purpose and meaning, Gen Z is the generation with the lowest level of spiritual health.

Earlier MHI work has highlighted the challenges among younger generations in maintaining their health and how employers can play a role in improving it. For example, workplace interventions that promote positive behaviors and limit negative ones can help create organizational climates that promote holistic health. In the search for meaning, some individuals may find a sense of purpose in their jobs. Others, however, may feel strongly that work is an intellectual or necessary part of life but that their primary purpose comes from volunteering in their communities, raising a family, creating art, engaging in activism, or doing other actions.

Spiritual health can be deeply personal, but MHI findings suggest that the workplace may be one of many places where individuals experience a sense of purpose and positive spiritual health overall (Exhibit 5). A person may find their job unfulfilling, but the flip side could also occur: people can find deep fulfillment in paid or unpaid work. About two-thirds of Gen Z respondents, for example, said spiritual health considerations, such as a purposeful mission statement and opportunities for pro bono work, were “very important” or “important” when it came to selecting an employer. Seventy percent of millennials and 66 percent of Gen X reported the same.

Across all generations, spiritual health factors, such as mission-driven work, are important to respondents when considering a future employer.

However, having a sense of purpose at work cannot override negative elements, such as toxic behavior and burnout.12Reframing employee health: Moving beyond burnout to holistic health,” McKinsey Health Institute, November 2, 2023. Additionally, individuals may prefer not to seek purpose in the workplace; instead, they may turn to avenues like volunteering, helping family members, participating in a religious or spiritual community, or all of the above. Still, recognizing the role the workplace can play in promoting spiritual health is an element of total employee holistic health, and creating opportunities for purpose in the workplace may be essential to the future of work.

Spiritual health can be framed as part of an individual’s overall well-being. Seeking purpose and meaning, connecting with what matters, and acting with intention can be a lifelong journey, much like the need to regularly assess one’s physical, mental, and social health. “Some of us are more predisposed than others to feeling spiritually connected. . . .  But we can all cultivate this natural capacity and build our spiritual muscle,” notes Lisa Miller, researcher on spiritual health and author of The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life (Random House, August 2021).

Similar to mental health, while spiritual health is personal to each individual, strong communities can be essential to increasing spiritual well-being for people around the world, along with other dimensions of health. Social, public, and private stakeholders can explore ways to help people find purpose and space for self-reflection in order to boost holistic health. These ways may include ensuring city residents have access to natural or green spaces that provoke reflection or exploring how community-level endeavors can improve people’s overall well-being. Another consideration for employers is how to better convey their appreciation for mission-based work to employees or how workplaces can encourage a holistic view of health. Other potential actions may simply include decreasing stigmas about discussion of spiritual health.

For those who want to cultivate spiritual health, the path may begin with recognizing its role in overall well-being. And starting the conversation on spiritual health could be an important first step to improving the health of ourselves and others.

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