Psych of Religion #3: A Psychobabble Guide to Feeling & Recognizing the Spirit

In the Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Robert Emmons describes emotion as “acute, intense, and typically brief psychophysiological changes that result from a response to a meaningful situation in [your] environment” and which motivate you toward any particular course of action. While different religions stress various ways of expressing emotion (from intense positive emotion through shared ritual to feelings of peace) this post will provide a brief discussion and overview of emotion within the context of Mormonism, based on the Handbook chapter mentioned above. 1

How does the Church Influence Emotion?

  1. The church instructs members on what feelings are good to feel, how strongly we should feel them, and what to do when we’re feeling the “bad” feelings. For example:
    • “If you chance to meet a frown, do not let it stay, quickly turn it upside down and smile that frown away.” 2
    • “The still small voice is not always a voice that we hear with our ears. Instead, it speaks in our minds and in our hearts. When we listen for it we are listening for a thought and searching our hearts for a feeling… The feeling is of peace, right, and sureness. It is a warm, good feeling.” 3
    • “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body. Pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit so that you can be clean and virtuous. The Spirit of the Lord will withdraw from one who is in sexual transgression… Pray to your Father in Heaven, who will help you resist temptation and overcome inappropriate thoughts and feelings.” 4
    • “And if ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity.” 5
  2. The church’s teachings about God might make you feel certain positive or negative emotions, affecting your wellbeing, for better or for worse:
    • “And surely every man must repent or suffer” 6
    • “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” 7
  3. The church gives you a chance to have powerful spiritual experiences. There are also a number of emotional benefits to being a Mormon: Mormonism can affect how strongly you feel about things in your life through giving meaning to events that may otherwise be seen as random. The gospel can help you be more accepting of difficulties in your life than someone who is not religious.

Can You Feel the Spirit in “Non-Religious” Contexts?

As members of the church—and religious people in general—we tend to inject spiritual significance into many aspects of our lives (such as family and employment) that others would see as secular. This is actually a benefit to church members. For example, marital partners who view their relationship as having divine elements (e.g. as “eternal companions”) are more satisfied, more committed, better at problem-solving, and have less conflict than those who do not see their marriages through a sacred lens.

Religious Feelings & Music

According to affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, music is “one of the few ways that humans can allow the external world voluntary access to their emotional systems on a very regular basis.” Panksepp discusses a common physiological experience that people report when they are moved by something musical:

“a shiver up and down the spine, which often spreads down the arms and legs, and, indeed, all over the body. To the best of our knowledge, this response reflects a mixture of vasoconstriction, local skin contractions caused by piloerection, and perhaps changes in evaporative cooling at the skin surface. Such effects can be objectively measured as a galvanic skin response (GSR), which is a general yardstick of skin resistance. Of course, there is great variability in the incidence of this response. Some people rarely recognize such feelings in their lives, while others, probably the more social ones, delight in them frequently.”

Panksepp uses the term “chills” to describe this “shivery-tingly” feeling, although he notes that men more often tend to use the word “thrills.” Sad music generally produces more “chills” in listeners than happy music. He also explains that these types of feelings promote connection in relationships:

“the experience of separation establishes an internal feeling of thermoregulatory discomfort that can be alleviated by the warmth of reunion. In music that provokes chills, the wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion are profoundly blended in the dynamics of sound. Thus, there may be no better stimulus for chills than a sustained note of grief sung by a soprano or played on a violin. This audiovocal experience speaks to us of our humanness and our profound relatedness to other people and the rest of nature.”

A Guide to Specific Religious Emotions

  • Gratitude is an “emotional response to a gift” and has three morality functions:
    • Barometer: Tells you when someone else has done something for you.
    • Motivator: Prompts you to also behave in pro-social ways.
    • Reinforcer: Increases the likelihood that positive actions will continue.
  • Awe is the “overpowering feeling of majesty and mystery in the presence of the holy that is at the same time fascinating and dreadful.” Awe includes acknowledging your response to what is most wonderful in your religion.
  • Wonder is what you feel when you “encounter something novel and unexpected, something that strikes [you] as intensely powerful, real, true, and/or beautiful.” 8
  • Forgiveness can be made more significant by religion, which in turn provides a ritual or model to facilitate forgiveness. Whatever the intervention, attempts at forgiveness must increase positive emotions, and reduce negative emotions, the latter of which depends on what is motivating your forgiveness.

In addition to these feelings, religion can also enhance wellbeing and growth around emotions such as joy, interest, and contentment. Positive emotions experienced in sacred contexts can also contribute to more effective coping in times of need and distress.

Regular Emotions or the Feeling of the Holy Ghost?

“As concrete states of mind, made up of a feeling plus a specific sort of object, religious emotions of course are psychic entities distinguishable from other concrete emotions… there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw…” ~William James

The following points may influence you in feeling the Spirit as opposed to an ordinary emotion:

  1. You identify as a religious or spiritual person (duh).
  2. You are in a religious setting such as church, seminary/institute, or the temple.
  3. You are doing a religious activity, such as praying, reading your scriptures, or listening to General Conference.

Setting Apart

However one chooses to label these feelings, they separate the believer from the nonbeliever. The Spirit increases a member’s commitment to the church and the gospel. Religious emotion, or the feeling of the Holy Ghost, also builds a “testimony for communicating one’s faith to others and for providing assurance and certainty of one’s own faith.”


1. Terms such as “spiritual feelings” and “religious emotion” are used to connote the experience of feeling the Spirit or the Holy Ghost, such as the “burning in the bosom.” Other methods of spiritual experience or revelation are beyond the scope of this post.

2. See Nursery Manual, Lesson 19: I Can Be Happy

3. See Family Home Evening Resource Book: Learning to Recognize the Spirit

4. See For the Strength of Youth: Sexual Purity

5-7. Read Yo’ Scriptures

8. Anyone else think of the hymn, “With Wondering Awe”?