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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 33 Number 2
Spring 2006

Equanimity and Spirituality

Alexander W. Astin and James P. Keen

The impetus for preparing this paper grew out of an extended series of conversations with a group of colleagues that has been discussing the concept of "spirituality," its meaning, and its role in higher education. Recently the two of us reached a point where we agreed that one potentially useful way to approach the definitional problem would be to describe what a "spiritual" person or a person who is "highly developed spiritually" would be like. When we asked ourselves what personal qualities such a person would be likely to display, one of the first constructs that came to mind was "equanimity."

These abstract musings have recently taken on a more concrete form in connection with a national study of college students’ spiritual development that is currently under way at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) with support from the Templeton Foundation. The research team for this project elected to view the concept of spirituality in multidimensional terms. In effect, this decision assumes that spirituality is not a unitary construct, that it probably has several components, and that it can be manifest or expressed (and measured) in several different ways.

Measuring Equanimity

This multidimensional view was subsequently confirmed in a large-scale pilot survey where 3,700 college juniors were asked to respond to more than 150 short statements having to do with spirituality. Through a series of complex statistical analyses of the students’ responses to these statements, it was possible to identify 19 different subsets, each consisting of statements that cluster together. By "cluster" we mean a set of statements that students tend to answer in a similar way. Thus, if a student says that one of the statements in a cluster is an accurate self-descriptor, that student will tend to say that the other statements in that cluster are also accurate self-descriptors. Examples of the names that were assigned to these different "spiritual" dimensions or clusters included Spiritual Quest, Religious Engagement, Ecumenical Worldview, Charitable Involvement, Compassionate Self-concept, and so forth. A cluster called Equanimity" included six statements. Two of the six statements were preceded by the following instructions: "Since entering college, how often have you…"

· Been able to find meaning in times of hardship

· Felt at peace/centered

The other four statements were preceded by "Indicate the extent to which each of the following describes you:

          · Feeling good about the direction in which my life is headed

          · Seeing each day, good or bad, as a gift

          · Being thankful for all that has happened to me

                              · Feeling a strong connection with all humanity

The first statement, perhaps more than any of the other five, best captures the traditional dictionary meaning of equanimity, which typically refers to one’s capacity to "see the silver lining" during difficult or trying times. Many of the other statements suggest a more general sense of psychological or spiritual well-being and optimism. The last item, in particular, suggests a transcendent or "world-centric" sense of self. In spiritual or religious terms, we might describe a person who strongly endorses all six statements as one who experiences life as a "state of grace." From still another perspective, the six "Equanimity" items appear to capture some of the qualities that the "perennial philosophy" associates with "higher" states of consciousness: calm, peacefulness, centeredness, self-transcendence, and compassion. Note that Equanimity, as defined by statements such as these, also has a substantial affective component: "felt at peace," "feeling good," "felt a strong connection."

The preparation of this article was supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

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