Motives for Visiting Houses of Worship and Monasteries

Given the symbolic of religious spaces as the refugees from this world’s troubles, it’s understandable that environmental psychologists have recently become interested in monasteries and houses of worship as restorative environments. In order to investigate restorative potential of such settings, the first step would be to explore reasons people go there, and see if there are any parallels with theories of psychological restoration.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona; photo by aurelian

The following studies explore how a monastery  (Ouellette et al., 2005) and houses of worship (Herzog et al., 2010) can serve as restorative settings in the context of Attention Restoration Theory but with due regard for the spiritual nature of the setting.

According to Attention Restoration Theory, prolonged or intense cognitive effort produces a deficit in the capacity to direct attention, followed by unpleasant symptoms such as irritability, distractibility, impulsiveness, and impaired capacity to make and follow plans (Kaplan & Kaplan, 2003, according to Ouellette et al., 2005). Directed attention is being recovered by calling upon  effortless (involuntary) attention, which is more likely to happen in certain environments and during some activities.

 Meteora monastery, Greece; photo by Gerwin Filius

Kaplan called the environments that have high restorative potential softly fascinating (as opposed to very intense, dramatic and engaging environments), because they combine beauty with a more modest level of fascination, leaving room for reflection, which is the case of many natural settings. Substantial research has shown that time in nature, even if only for a short duration, can offer restorative benefits (Canin,1992 ; Herzog,2002 ; Kaplan, 1973,1993, 2001; Wells,2000; according to Ouellette et al., 2005 ), and lately there has been some interest in other potentially restorative environments including museums, favourite places, and most recently, spiritual settings.

 Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp; photo by roryrory

There are four properties hypothesized to be essential for a successful restorative experience, which theoretically make spiritual settings good candidates for attention restoration:

(1) a sense of being away – physically or mentally removed from the activities that are attentionally demanding,

(2) fascination, facilitating involuntary attention by the intrinsic interest of the situation,

(3) the perception of extent, that is giving one the sense of being somewhere with sufficient scope that one can dwell there for a while,and

(4) compatibility, the perceived match between the person’s  needs and what the environment provides.

Santuario de las lajas, Ipiales, Colombia

The motivators for visiting houses of worship (Herzog et al., 2010) were, ranked by importance:

  • spirituality (reasons such as “to worship God or a higher power”, “be close to God”)
  • contemplation (“provides an opportunity to meditate”, “provides an atmosphere of contemplation”)
  • being away (“provides rest”, “to get away from daily responsibilities”)
  • beauty (“allows me to appreciate the beauty of the setting”, “fascinated by the setting”), and
  • sense of obligation (reasons such as obligation, guilt, or habit).

Baptistry at Coventry Cathedral; photo by stevecadman

The motivatirs for staying at Benedictine monastery (Ouellette et al., 2005) were, ranked by importance:

  • being away (reasons such as  “allows me to live moments of silence” , “removes me from a world of agitation and turmoil”)
  • spirituality (“replenishes spiritually”, “deepens faith”)
  • compatibility (“allows me to take stock of my life”, ” allows me to learn to know myself better”), and
  • beauty (“allows me to appreciate the beauty of the setting”,“fascinated by the setting”).

Tiger’s nest monastery; Bhutan; photo by bobwitlox

First-timers and repeat visitors had similar ratings for ‘‘Being Away’’ and ‘‘Compatibility,’’ but ‘‘Spirituality’’ and ‘‘Beauty’’ were significantly stronger motivations for the repeat visitors than for those who had not come previously. In fact, Beauty is an increasingly strong motivation the more frequent the returns to the monastery.

Winchester Cathedral; photo by stevecadman

Both studies yielded three common motives: spirituality, beauty, and being away. Since beauty can be seen as a combination of soft fascination and extent, the Attention Restoration Theory motives were well-represented in both sets of results. Moreover, the lack of a perceptible compatibility motive in the houses of worship study does not mean, according to its authors, that compatibility is unimportant in restoration at houses of worship. They belive that compatibility has already occurred for the typical respondent (the environment matches visitor’s needs).

Cathedral of Brasilia; photo by Frank van Leersum

So, beside being a quest for spirituality, visiting monasteries and houses if worship is a search for restorative experiences, too. It remains to be seen what are the outcomes of visiting spiritual settings, that is, do these places support the visitors in achieving goals they came for (coming soon!). And, in order gain a broader view at the issue of psychological restoration, it is necessary to investigate it from a perspective other than cognitive (as in the case of Attention Restoration Theory).

 Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp; photo by roryrory

1. Herzog, T.R., Ouellette, P., Rolens, J.R., & Koenigs, A.M. (2010). Houses of Worship as Restorative Environments. Environment and Behavior, 42, 4, 395-419.
2. Ouellette, P., Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (2005). The monastery as a restorative environment.
Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 175-188.

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