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.

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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.

Selected References:

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.

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Christine, I cringe at the word “spirituality.”  In our culture, it connotes the supernatural, which, as a skeptic, I reject.  You seem to embrace the supernatural at least to some extent.  How do you reconcile “higher power,” “magic,” and “mysticism” with your commitment to the scientific examination of parenting?  In any event, what I object to in your post is your suggestion that these beliefs are important for children to feel connectedness, awe, and meaning.  How about looking at the night sky and understanding what the stars are, that we all literally come from them, and that all living things are, in fact, connected?  Isn’t that enough?  The more I understand “reality,” the more I am wowed.  And I am doing my best to pass my love of reality to my kids.  Happy holidays!

Svetlana | 8:54 pm, December 23, 2009 | Link


I don’t mean to sound critical (particularly since I’ve been reading your blog for ages and only now felt moved to comment), but I want to point out a possible bias in your spirituality questions. Specifically the one about being loved by a higher power. While you use a nuetral title for “God,” as far as I know it is only Christianity that talks much about the love of God. It certianly implies a personified deity capable of loving- something that some eastern and earth religions may lack entirely. Among religions that do have A humanistic power, Judaism and Islam seem much more interested in the power and rules of God, rather than LOVE. Parts of the old testimate do have a slightly more sympathetic god, the livin god doesn’t really show up until the new testimate. I may be mistaken (always) but that is my memory from religion classes.
My wording suggestion would to have one question that asks whether the child feels a connection to a higher power, and the second asking if he/she wants a connection or stronger connection to a higher power.
That’s just my take. I’m not sure whether I’m spiritual or not, but I think about things an awful lot. I firmly do NOT believe in a (higher) being who loves me, but I do feel connected to the world around me. These days I am an extremely happy person. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif
@Svetlana- Isnt reason a higher power? I don’t mean tha snidely. You are identifying a greater order which strikes you with awe. Would you be as happy if you couldn’t identify that order, if everything were meaningless chaos? Or if you felt disconnected from that order? I don’t think a higher power NEEDS to be a person… maybe it doesn’t even need to be a greater purpose?

Meagan | 12:31 am, December 24, 2009 | Link


When I found out I was to become a parent, I started looking online for resources.  I was incredibly pleased when I found your blog.  After all, I am a scientist myself and so I was mostly disinterested in the multitude of blogs giving advice based solely on unique personal experiences.
But, as pleased as was then, I am equally disappointed now.  Being spiritual, or religious, is one’s prerogative; but to force it on children is tantamount to abuse.
That actual study to which you refer is freely available: http://web.ubc.ca/okanagan/psyo/research/happy/publications.html.
Note that the authors conclude that *only* the Personal and Communal domains were predictors of happiness while the others (Environmental and Transcendental) were not.  So questions about higher powers, etc. were completely irrelevant to happiness.
So how, exactly, does meaning and value in one’s own life and the quality and depth of interpersonal relationships become equated with spirituality?  The authors give the following answer:
The present study is consistent with the idea that spirituality is associated with children’s happiness because spirituality is associated with increased personal meaning.
Wow, just wow.  Associated is about as ambiguous as it gets in science and the authors offer no clarification or reference as to what exactly this means.
I would be inclined to say that personal meaning bears *no connection whatsoever* to spirituality.  To me, then, this study shows not only that personal meaning is linked to happiness but also that spirituality is *not* linked to happiness.
Luckly, for those careful readers, the authors somewhat redeem themselves in the final conclusion:
…this may suggest strategies to enhance happiness.  For example, strategies aimed at enhancing personal meaning in children’s lives may promote happiness. Future studies could have children engage in activities that might promote personal meaning. For example, children might volunteer to help others or record their contributions to the community in a journal.  Then changes in happiness and personal meaning before and after these activities could be compared.  If personal meaning is critical to happiness, one might see that these activities particularly enhanced happiness for those children who showed increases in personal meaning.

Chris | 12:15 pm, December 25, 2009 | Link


I can’t recall whether this blog has linked to Parenting Beyond Belief yet, which is written by an atheist father, but I think it might have some good suggestions for some of the problems that this post raised for me, at least.
A church environment often provides the kind of community that non-churched people don’t have easy access to. As an agnostic humanist partnered to a staunch atheistic humanist, we’ve struggled with ways of achieving that kind of community for when we have kids.
Similarly, because there is increased social pressure to do so, the churched statistically give more time and money to charities and their communities — something that a previous commenter noted contributes to a sense of “personal meaning.” Non-religious people have to work harder to pursue these things, but it’s perfectly reasonable to teach one’s children to volunteer and donate without being present in church.
Christine, do you have suggestions for ways to fulfill these needs without getting all churchy on kids?

Beth | 1:18 pm, December 25, 2009 | Link


(I tried to post a comment earlier and it didn’t seem to go through, so my apologies if this shows up twice.) Christine, thank you for the courage and thoughtfulness to publish a post that inevitably will elicit some barbed comments.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot because as our family travels abroad for a year, I really am missing our church back home, Montclair Presbyterian in Oakland (http://www.mpcfamily.org). How does it contribute to happiness in our family? Much of it has to do with taking an hour and half out of the week to be in community with others; studying the Scripture and considering the example of radical hospitality and love as exemplified by Jesus; considering big-picture questions involving the meaning of life; and reaching out to connect with others whom we might not ordinarily connect with. None of this necessarily has to do with what is defined as “spirituality” above — as “feeling a higher power’s love for me” and “desire to be close to a higher power.” Truth be told, I’m fundamentally agnostic; I don’t really believe in a higher power (though I’d like to), but I do believe in the power of love that’s within all of us, which some ascribe to God.

It’s not a one-on-one relationship with a higher power I seek and take comfort from, but rather the mind- and heart-expanding experience of being in a church that brings people together to explore these questions, study the history of the tradition, care for one another and try to bring out the best in one another.

As a family, going to church really rates as time well spent during the week. My kids complain about it — they’d rather hang out at home and do nothing after a busy week — but they usually admit it was worthwhile afterward. It’s time we’re all together; it’s time they hear stories, music and meet with other people in a way that expands their minds. It leads to fascinating discussions afterward (e.g. “How did Mary get pregnant?” …  “Did the Resurrection really happen?”) with no wrong or right answers but a lot of food for thought.

I don’t think they’re developing “faith” by going to church as much as curiosity and compassion for others.

I’m fully aware that some of the worst things in our world are done in the name of religion, and some churches in the U.S. are leading the push for some of the most hateful, regressive politics in our country. It’s no wonder people are deeply skeptical of all things religious. I feel fortunate to have found an open-minded, intellectually grounded Christian church that works with other faith traditions, believing that there are many parallel paths to the divine. I hope other families will consider seeking out a church like this too and giving it a try.



Sarah | 11:01 am, December 26, 2009 | Link


Thank you for your comments on spirituality for children. As a therapist who sees many children, I have an open window into the thoughts of children that I have not myself raised.  Children have a lovely view of community and even at a very young age seek out meaning for their lives and situations.  Even in families who do not practice any specific religion, I hear them talk about prayer and hear their quiestions about what happens when loved ones die.  Those living in abusive families have described praying during lonely nights as children for comfort.  As I strive to maintain objectivity and certaily to avoid specific religious bias with my clients, I am strenghtened by what I hear from the children I see as they talk about their fears, beliefs and comforts that they often find in their relationship with God.

Janet Jergins | 2:32 pm, December 29, 2009 | Link


Christine – I just wanted to drop a note to say I echo Svetlana’s comment, almost exactly. I just wanted you to know how another of your readers felt. This post is made me reconsider why I read your blog. I couldn’t connect to you at all here, whereas in the past I have found your entries helpful and relevant for my life.  A big THANK YOU to Chris for posting a link to the study as well. Its conclusions were much more inspirational to me than this entry.

Rebecca | 5:06 pm, December 29, 2009 | Link


I disagree (with the blog post).  I attend a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, myself.  I think “spirituality” is an empty word.  I am not religious at all; I think religion is dangerous and mind-numbing. 
Stay positive and teach love and respect.  I don’t need religion or spirituality for that.

G.P. | 12:46 pm, December 30, 2009 | Link


Dear Christine,

I am using this post to ask for something. I like your approach very much and I was wonderign if you have any suggestions on how to deal with a distracted child.


Angelica | 10:09 am, January 1, 2010 | Link


Wow, you all sound quite paranoid or is it a mask for guilt about not providing your kids with any religious upbringing? At the very least, providing your children with a religious foundation brings them literacy about both faith and religion. On any given day you can’t guarantee what situation your children might find themselves in. Say your child has no one to turn to at some point when you’re gone from this world. Who would you prefer that they turn to… drugs, alcohol, Christ. What is the worst thing that could happen, your children might discover that they’re not the center of the universe, perhaps that they have a responsibility to serve others, that they find social connectedness?

Trisha | 3:14 pm, January 11, 2010 | Link


@ Trisha-

To state that the only alternatives to “Christ” for hard times are drugs and alcohol is a false dichotomy. The world is not comprised of 2 billion Christians and 4 billion alchoholics and drug abusers.
It’s also ironic that you indicate that religion can help someone discover that they’re not the center of the universe. You may wish to research the Catholic Church’s treatment of Galileo.
Children can be (and are) taught morals and social values in secular ways.  If you think that all of your morals and values come from your bible, then read it again. I doubt you stone and kill those the bible suggests you do.
You are right about one thing though: it is important to provide children with religious literacy. The more you know about the people with whom you share the planet, the better we can all get along. This does not mean that we must teach our children about non-scientific things like supernatural events and magic as real.

Rebecca | 5:10 pm, January 11, 2010 | Link


>“drugs, alcohol, Christ.”
So, those are the choices, eh?  That’s a very limited world view.  And ditto what Rebecca said about the center of the universe.  Christianity and some other religions teach that homo sapiens is somehow special, singled out by a mysterious god. Sounds suspiciously like the center of the universe.

G.P. | 6:57 pm, January 11, 2010 | Link

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