Contact: Jenni Smith
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Dec. 10, 2001

PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR TO RESEARCH SPIRITUALITY AND AGING

DALLAS (SMU) -- “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it,” (Proverbs 22:6) is a widely recited Bible verse that just might get some scientific validation from research by Southern Methodist University psychology Professor Michael McCullough.

McCullough, who received a $150,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund the research, is working on a four-year project to assess spiritual and religious development across the adult life span and to discern the relationship of spiritual and religious development to physical and emotional health.

“The psychology of religion has the potential to illuminate some important dimensions of human nature,” McCullough says. “Spiritual and religious development -- as well as how they are related to people’s emotional and physical health -- really captures my imagination. It is a set of phenomena that nobody understands very well. I want to see what we can learn about people’s spiritual lives as they age.”

McCullough’s study, the Terman Spirituality and Health Project, uses data from the Terman Life Cycle Study of Children with High Ability, one of the longest-running and most prominent longitudinal studies in the history of social science. This study began in 1922 as a sample of more than 1,500 gifted boys and girls from California who all tested in the “genius” range in intelligence. Participants responded to multiple measures of their spiritual and religious involvement in numerous follow-up studies throughout their childhood, early adulthood, middle adulthood and old age.

Data from the initial Terman study has produced nearly 100 published studies over the years in areas of genius, creativity, human development, marital stability, obesity, personality, and mental and physical health. However, until now no one has studied the data scientifically to measure the role of religion and spirituality in the lives of the Terman study participants. His goal is to observe how spirituality and religiousness grow and mature over time and how they affect well-being and longevity.

The spirituality and religiousness of the Terman study participants are measured through their frequency of church attendance, private prayer, self-rated importance of religion, and penchant for finding strength and comfort in a relationship with God or a higher power. Other research has suggested that these forms of religious engagement are related to positive outcomes in people’s lives, such as good physical and mental health, happiness and marital satisfaction.

Developmental research shows that older people stop involvement in relationships that are not meaningful or personally rewarding as they age, but that deepening involvement with religion begins to matter more in the later years, McCullough says. “It seems so important to me to understand the aging process and how it touches our spiritual lives.”

One of the theories McCullough plans to test is a polarization hypothesis, also called the “Matthew effect,” which suggests that the spiritually “rich” get richer and the spiritually “poor” get poorer, in terms of their spiritual growth over time. This hypothesis, if proven, would demonstrate that people’s religious commitment -- or lack thereof -- in early adulthood sets them on a course of either ever-increasing (or ever-decreasing) interest in religious matters throughout life.

Another hypothesis questions whether religion is related to physical health. While some studies have linked religious involvement to better mental and physical health, McCullough is trying to determine whether changes over time in religious practices are related to length of life.

A third hypothesis McCullough hopes to test is whether some personality types have a proclivity to spiritual behavior. His research will measure intellectual curiosity, negative emotions, extroversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness as personality traits to determine if these aspects of personality correlate with people’s engagement in religious and spiritual pursuits as they age.

McCullough earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and his doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University. He began teaching at SMU in 2000, the same year he was awarded a Margaret Gorman Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association. In 2001, he was awarded the American Psychological Association/John Templeton Foundation Award for research in positive psychology. McCullough has written more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and authored or edited four books. Oxford Press will publish his upcoming book on the psychology of gratitude in 2003.


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