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Johan Ödmann—Copyright Johner Bildbyra AB

Why Kids Who Believe in Something Are Happier and Healthier

Apr 17, 2015

Despite more than a decade of widespread attention on happiness and the benefits of positive psychology, there is an epidemic of unhappiness in children and teens. Quite severe unhappiness. Health statistics over the past decade show that beyond the 20% to 25% of teens with major depression are another 40% (yes, that's a total of 65%) who struggle with intrusive levels of depression symptoms at some point, and often with anxiety and substance abuse as well.

Kids of middle-class and more affluent families—kids who would seem to have everything going for them—have far higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and anti-social tendencies than their less privileged peers. Why has the mass happiness initiative failed our kids? Science is bringing the problem into resolution.

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An increasingly narcissistic culture and the constant reward for achievement, whether on the playing field, the music stage or the math test, creates what I call in my book the unbalanced “performance self” of the child; a child who feels his or her worth is founded on ability and accomplishment.

We want our children to have grit to persist and win, the optimism that they will be more successful, but where does it lead? Children come to believe they are no better than their last success and suffer a sense of worthlessness when there is loss or even moderate failure. Where love is conditional on performance, children suffer.

Now the antidote. A new study just published online in the Journal of Religion and Health by my lab at Columbia University shows that happiness and the character traits of grit and persistence go “hand in hand” with a deeper inner asset: spirituality, which this study measured as a deep spiritual connection with a sense of a sacred world.

More generally my research of more than 20 years on adolescence, depression and spirituality shows more specifically how putting a priority on performance stunts development of a child’s inner life and the single most powerful protection against depression and suffering, the spiritual self.

What we have learned is that children are born with an innate capacity for spirituality, just as they are born with the capability to learn a language, read and think. But just as it takes time and effort to develop the ability to speak or read, it also takes time and effort to develop our innate sense of the spiritual.

A strong new body of science, developed during the last decade to what we now consider to be a level of certainty, demonstrates, first, that any sort of spirituality becomes a source of health and thriving for kids and, second, that the lack of spirituality in families and youth culture can be a big source of suffering.

Among other things, our research demonstrates:

  • Spiritually plays a significant role in child social, emotional and cognitive development. Kids with a strong spirituality overall have greater grit, higher grades, more optimism and persistence than kids without a strong sense of spirituality.
  • Teenagers who say they have a strong sense of spirituality are 80% less likely than the norm to have unprotected or dangerous sex, and 40% less likely to use drugs
  • Personal spirituality that includes a direct personal relationship with nature, a universal presence or higher power (by any name) has a clear correlation with physical wellness and recovery from depression and disease; indeed, greater spiritual awareness produces the same readings in brain scans as recovery due to medication.

We have found that the natural spirituality of children and young people can be encouraged and fostered by such steps as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature where a sense of transcendence can be engaged. Parents can demonstrate approval for (and model) such traits as caring for others, empathy or optimism.

Most important, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable, parents must not turn away from questions that children are prone to ask—those difficult “why” questions that go directly to moral issues or to such visceral questions as whether there is a God, how we know, and what that means to us.

In contrast to the performance self, the spiritual self is sturdy and resilient, happy at a win, but not dependent on it to feel worthy as human being. In our excessively competitive culture, with often thin support for spiritual development, parents must actively work to help their children to a spiritual life.

Parents who aggressively push their children to achieve “success” in finding the “right” school, achieving the “right kind of job” should consider the science of the matter. Spirituality is more essential to thriving and success than ability to perform. Spiritual children have a sense of inner worth, a sense of the lasting, higher sacred self, much bigger than the day’s win or defeat. And when they achieve their goals – that better job, or that higher income – the studies show that well-grounded, spiritually engaged young people can actually feel fulfilled by their life choices.

That’s something worth pushing for.

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Lisa Miller, Ph.D. is Director of Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, The Spiritual Child; The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving

Read next: How Do You Talk to Kids About God?

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