I am not a particularly religious person. I have been taking my kids to our local Unitarian Universalist church in the hopes that they will get a broad religious education and some of that good ole love-your-neighbor doctrine instilled in their blood. Turns out that I should be hoping they get something different: not religion, but spirituality.
I am a deeply spiritual person, but I'm not sure how I turned out this way. I was raised Presbyterian by an engaged-but-skeptical father and a totally atheist mother. But however I got it, research shows that my spirituality is probably a key cause of much of my happiness.
For decades we've had research that shows that adults who consider themselves to be religious tend to be happier than people who do not. Theories abound about why this might be: attending church can increase your social support and social ties, which leads to happiness; having faith in God or some higher source might boost our ability to cope, thereby reducing stress during hard times; religion might provide meaning in life, and it might provide guidelines for a healthier lifestyle.
Turns out that for kids, church attendance and religious practices (like praying) aren't linked to their happiness. But children's spirituality is strongly linked to their happiness: kids who are more spiritual tend to be considerably happier; in one study, spirituality accounted for 26 percent of kids' happiness. That's a lot.
But what constitutes "spirituality?" Here are some of the statements and questions the researchers presented to 761 kids; the more positively the kids responded, the higher their perceived level of spirituality.
- I feel a higher power's love for me
- I desire to be closer to a higher power
- I try hard to use my religious or spiritual beliefs in all parts of my life
- How often do you find strength and comfort in your religion or spirituality?
- When you are worried or have a problem, how often do you depend on your religion or spirituality to help you?
They also assessed four different dimensions of spirituality: meaning and value in one's own life; the quality and depth of interpersonal relationships; a sense of awe for nature; and faith in and relationship with someone or something beyond what we can see and touch.
What strikes me is that inspiring spirituality in our children, as defined by the researchers, really means helping them feel awe, elevation, and faith—three positive emotions. Positive emotions ARE a form of happiness in my mind. And spirituality, as they define it, includes those things that we already know foster happiness: meaning in life and strong social connections.
So this Christmas (we Unitarian Universalists celebrate all of the winter holy days) I'm going to try to help my kids focus a little less on their roles in the nativity play at church and a little more on the spiritual feelings the holidays evoke for them.
After all, the world is amazing. It is full of magic and love and mystical things that are so much bigger than ourselves. As we gather with friends and family, we'll say grace together—acknowledging a higher power who loves us. On our way to church tomorrow night, I'm going to talk to the kids about how we can use our spirituality in the rest of our lives. I don't think I've ever done that.
And what better time of year to inspire awe in children—good deeds are everywhere. (Here are two stories to tell your children, one about a kid who helps Santa, and the other about a man who hated Christmas, but his family made it meaningful to him ). Most religions recount miracles at this time of year, of lamps that don't go out and miracle births—these stories inspire awe and elevation. And there is, of course, also Santa: what could be more awe-inspiring than the magic of a sleigh with gifts for every child in the world and flying reindeer?
Happy Holidays, everyone. Cheers to embracing the magic.
© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Holder, Mark D., Ben Coleman, and Judi Wallace, 2008, "Spirituality, Religiousness, and Happiness in Children Aged 8-12 Years," Journal of Happiness Studies, published online 11 December 2008, DOI 10.1007/s10902-008-9126-1.Join the Campaign for 100,000 Happier Parents by signing this simple pledge.
Become a fan of Raising Happiness on Facebook.Follow Christine Carter on Twitter
Subscribe to the Happiness Matters Podcast on iTunes.