Feature Article

Meaningful coping with adversity in Western Europe

The changing role and form of religious thought in more secular nations.

By Jessie Dezutter, PhD

Experiencing meaning in life is acknowledged as an important aspect for optimal psychological functioning (e.g., Steger, 2012). However, the confrontation with stressful situations shatters the sense of meaning of individuals what can create feelings of loss of control and loss of predictability, leading to the experience of intense stress (Park, 2008). Coping with severe life stressors such as trauma, bereavement or medical stressors will thus involve trying to re-establish meaning in one's life as well as trying to find meaning in the stressful life event. How do people cope meaningfully in a changing West-European society where institutional and established religion seems to disappear out of the public domain? That is the core focus of my research.

Meaning system approach

In the past, religion often seemed to be an obvious resource to turn to in times of sorrow, worries, and pain. Saying a prayer, burning a candle, or making a pilgrimage were part of the range of coping resources one could appeal on when confronted with life stressors. With the rise of medical science and the start of secularization in most West-European countries, religion as a coping tool seemed to have disappeared from the public domain. However, recent research (e.g., Büssing, et al., 2009) shows that aspects of religion and spirituality are still important in coping with severe life stressors such as trauma, loss, and chronic illness. However, these factors are less overtly visible and more secluded in the private realm. This conclusion fits with the observation in the sociology of religion that in more secularized and postmodern areas, such as Western European countries, the impact of institutionalized religion has been steadily waning and organizational dimensions of religion have decreased in importance over time (Becker, & de Hart, 2006). For example, in Belgium, church attendance and denominational affiliation are very low and the majority of the population are not active members of any religious tradition (Botterman, Hooghe, & Bekkers, 2009). Despite this resistance toward church affiliation and active involvement, most individuals still believe in a transcendent reality and the presence of a divine being, and they adhere to a more personal transcendent faith, not necessarily rooted in one specific religious tradition or denomination (Jagodzinski & Dobbelaere, 1995). Davie (2005) has further observed that religious beliefs have become increasingly personal, detached, and heterogeneous, resulting in a phenomenon of “believing without belonging” for many West European individuals. This ‘believing without belonging' attitude seems to spread in secularized and postmodern societies, where individuals may have turned away from culturally prescribed religious content but may, nonetheless, continue to value their personal constructs of beliefs and faith.

For studying meaningful coping in West-Europe, simple inquiries of denominational affiliation or church involvement is no longer adequate. A new and promising approach, especially suitable for postmodern and secularized countries, is the meaning systems perspective (e.g., Park, 2005; Silberman, 2005). A meaning system is the framework through which the individual views the world and his- or herself. Based on this orienting system, he or she interprets and evaluates experiences and encounters. Park (2005) described a system of global meaning, which includes global beliefs (cognitive aspect), global goals (motivational aspect) and a subjective sense of meaning or purpose (affective aspect). The content of this meaning system can be transcendent (with reference to a sacred core) or secular (without reference to a sacred core) and is suitable for the personal, heterogeneous and detached faith ideas of West-European participants. The approach is ideal to conduct research in secularized and pluralistic countries such as Belgium.

However, not only the content of the meaning system is important, but also the centrality (Huber, 2003). Indeed, the meaning system, both transcendent and immanent/secular, does not hold the same central place in every person's personality and we can assume that the impact of the meaning system on an individual's experience and behavior is dependent on the centrality of this system. In a study with chronic pain patients (Dezutter et al., 2010), we indeed found that the centrality of the meaning system plays a role in coping with pain.


Instead of focusing solely on the relationship between a meaning system and psychological functioning/health, my interest lays predominantly in the underlying processes. The guiding theoretical framework herein, is the meaning making model of Crystal Park (e.g., Park, 2010 for an overview) complemented with ideas from positive psychology on meaning in life (e.g., Steger, 2012) and concepts from cognitive-emotional process theory (Gross, 2003). In two recent studies, meaning in life turned out to be an important, but complex, predictor of well-being, both for healthy adolescents (Dezutter et al., 2013) as well as for chronic ill adults (Dezutter et al., in press). Other studies focused on specific aspects of meaning systems and specific meaning making processes. In collaboration with the Flemish Pain League and together with colleagues from the Netherlands (Dr. Schaap-Jonker) and Germany (Dr. Büssing), we explored the role of God images for chronic pain patients. Results showed that God images were related with happiness in chronic pain patients and this association was mediated by positive disease interpretation (an operationalization of cognitive re-appraisal; Dezutter et al., 2010). In line with the previous study and in collaboration with Dr. Wachholtz (UMass), a second study was set up to investigate whether prayer can function as a re-appraisal technique. Results seemed to indicate that prayer indeed has re-appraising capacities, especially for religious pain patients (Dezutter, Wachholtz, & Corveleyn, 2011). Currently, a new longitudinal study on this topic has been launched in collaboration with the Flemish Pain League. In this three-wave study, a broader range of aspects of the meaning system will be explored. In addition to the cognitive focus in the previous studies, emotional processes will be investigated, combined with a broader range of outcome variables tailored for this medical population (pain treatment, pain medication use, satisfaction with patient care). I'm looking forward to share the findings when the results are available!


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