As a human family, we’re asking ourselves some big questions in the face of social, political, and technological change: How can we honor the innate dignity and worth of ourselves and each other? How can we overcome selfishness and the isolation and conflict it breeds, and connect to each other through kindness, understanding, and generosity? How can we overcome this chaos and create a healthier and more harmonious planet?
While we adults can’t necessarily give our youth the answers, we can provide the space for spiritual inquiry and development, which research suggests may help buffer them against the mental challenges they face. Let’s take a look at what spirituality is, why it can be good for young people, and how to cultivate it in secular education.
What is spirituality?
This is the million-dollar question for many people. Indigenous scholars argue that spirituality within their cultures is “as fundamental to being alive as the air we breathe.” In general, Western scientists differentiate organized religious practices from the inner drive for three things that they suggest constitute spirituality:
- cultivating a sense of connection and belonging, including to something larger than oneself;
- developing awareness of the self and the world; and
- living a meaningful life.
So are these three things innate to who we are? A number of researchers from a variety of disciplines—such as genetics, psychology, biology, and cognitive science—suggest that the answer is yes.
For example, spirituality may be found in our genes. A study of several thousand twins showed that 29% of spirituality (in this case, a sense of personal devotion) is genetic. While this is an exciting finding, some researchers argue that twin studies are not generalizable to everyone. For that, we need to look to evolutionary psychology, which, for several decades, has been examining our innate capacity for positive emotions to form deep connections—an aspect of spirituality.
Hardwired emotions such as gratitude, compassion, and awe—which some researchers label as spiritual—make us feel more connected to others, and awe goes one step further by helping us feel a sense of self-transcendence, or connection to something larger than ourselves. Evolutionary scientists argue that these feelings of connection encourage generosity and helpfulness, which may have helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce.
In addition to our emotions and our genes, spirituality may also be found in the ways we see and think about the world. Cognitive psychologists have conducted experiments that demonstrate our natural capacity for spirituality starting from infancy as we develop our awareness of ourselves, others, and “something beyond the immediate everyday of life.”
For instance, scientists have found that children and adults, atheists and religious believers, and even well-trained scientists at Ivy League institutions look for design and purpose in the world—in other words, the “meaning and why” of things—even though how we do so may differ by culture. Westerners often attribute the design and purpose of nature-based objects to a single source—that is, belief in God/gods or conscious life within the natural world. Some Indigenous cultures look at these same objects through a relational lens; for example, birds have homes in trees that help protect the trees from harmful insects and that help to disperse the seeds for additional trees.
Some scientists take this research one step further by asking why, regardless of culture, we look for the “why,” and they have discovered that it may be because of our deep-seated need for meaning in the face of our inevitable mortality.
These findings make a strong case that spirituality is part of the fiber of our being. We are wired to question who we are, our place in the world, and the meaning of it all. We are also wired to connect deeply with others and with something that is greater than our little selves. So what does this mean for our youth?
Young people are interested in spirituality
In the early 2000s, researchers reached out to thousands of young people ages 12–25 from all over the world, wanting to know what they thought about spirituality and how it manifests in their lives, and whether spirituality was something they were interested in cultivating. The participants came from many different religious and non-religious backgrounds, such as Islam, Hindu, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and others.
Using surveys and focus groups, the researchers discovered that most of the young people felt that life has a spiritual aspect that is “a part of who you are.” As one youth from South America described, “I believe that every person has some spirituality within themselves because they believe in something, whatever it is they believe in.”
Most saw themselves as spiritual, and also believed in the transcendent. In addition, they tended to separate spirituality from religion. “Spirituality is experienced in your own being,” said one youth from Africa. “Most of religion is forced. Being spiritual means standing on a mountain with the wind blowing through your hair, and the feeling of being free.”
They also viewed spiritual development as a choice. A young person from South Africa stated that if a person isn’t spiritual, they won’t struggle with things and ask why things happen to us. “If you are not spiritual,” they explained, “you will never learn anything . . . [this] goes together with wisdom . . . you have to reflect on what’s happening to you.”
Perhaps most importantly, the youth wanted opportunities to talk about spirituality—but they wanted to do so in a safe place, without the fear of being judged. Another researcher and head of school, Kai Bynum, found something similar when working with teen boys. In his study, he described how when one of the boys used the word “spiritual” to describe his relationship to other people and to nature, other boys quickly volunteered to share their thoughts about spirituality.
“Their eyes and ideas were alive with promise and connection because,” Bynum writes, “they were, somehow, given the freedom to seek themselves within an idea that helped them situate their lives in a much broader context of existence.”
The benefits of spirituality in youth
Perhaps the most compelling reason for providing space for the spiritual development of our young people is how they benefit from it.
In the same study with the youth from all over the world, the researchers discovered that young people with high levels of spiritual development fared better physically and mentally, were more civically engaged, had greater academic success, and were overall more satisfied with life. They also took care of the environment, looked for peaceful ways to resolve conflict, volunteered more, and were more engaged in school.
Other cross-cultural studies have had similar findings. In Portugal, a study of 10th-grade students found that the more hopeful and spiritual they were, the greater their life satisfaction up to one year later. In Zambia, spirituality also predicted children’s life satisfaction. Among sixth-grade Black American youth living in an urban setting, having a spiritual orientation to life increased their focus on cooperation, empathy, and justice. And in a study with Latino teens in a poor, urban neighborhood, high levels of spirituality protected them from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from exposure to violence.
Interestingly, scientists have also found that more spiritual adolescents may also be more depressed. They surmise that because adolescence is a time of searching for identity, for meaning, for the “why” of life, not having concrete answers may also leave some youth with a sense of uncertainty that is challenging to navigate.
However, researchers suggest that having a strong sense of spirituality in adolescence may provide mental health protection in the long run.
What does this mean for education?
Spiritual development is a conundrum for many educators. They see the need and value of it, but think their hands are tied to do anything, especially in countries that separate church and state. I’ve asked a number of both private and public school educators how they do it. Many of them say, “I don’t call it spirituality, but I know that’s what I’m doing.” They suggest a few steps to take.
1. Help your students develop a relational consciousness. In other words, provide opportunities for them to develop deeper connections with themselves, their peers, and life itself. In a study across 15 countries, over 3,000 students from various religious and non-religious backgrounds were taught a curriculum with topics such as identifying and maintaining meaningful relationships, locating oneself in the context of the larger universe, and understanding unconditional love—namely, relational consciousness. Students who received this training (in comparison to those who didn’t) showed increased altruistic behavior.
Amy Chapman is executive director of the Collaborative for Spirituality in Education. In a 2021 paper, she and her coauthors explain that these kinds of deeper connections are similar to what physicist Martin Buber meant when he described an “I-Thou” relationship. “Each person recognizes and supports each person’s wholeness. It affirms the inherent value of the self.”
To illustrate this, the study includes a school in which the staff intentionally recognize the innate goodness in every student. Teachers describe a “look” that is affirming and joyful to students. As one educator explained, “That deeper way of beholding the student, I feel like they’re seen into existence.”
2. Bring the bigger questions of life into the classroom. When the purpose of education is reduced to college and career readiness, as is often the case in the U.S., the human experience is reduced to grades and money. Yes, we need to have the skills to support ourselves, but life is about so much more than that. Students already know this—perhaps more so than the adults who are just trying to survive day-to-day living.
This is why they ask the big questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? Does life have meaning? What is happiness? What is real love? And so on…and these big questions can be asked in any subject, even math. What is infinity? Is our universe truly just chaos and chance, or is there a mathematical beauty to it all? The Greater Good in Education practice Finishing Math Word Problems based on the work of Jamal Matthews has students “finish” math problems by making connections between solutions to problems to thinking about the larger systemic implications of the solution.
And for teachers who are still skeptical, neuroscientist Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang and her coauthors argue that abstract systemic-thinking that is emotionally meaningful to students actually helps them build their brains. This kind of transcendent thinking engages a part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN), or the posteromedial cortices, that involves activities such as thinking about values-based goals, constructing a sense of self, admiring others for their virtuous behavior, and “processing sacred values.” Scientists propose that when students link concrete goals, like getting into veterinarian school, to more transcendent ones, like becoming a vet to make the world safer for animals, the process may strengthen the connection between the reward system of the brain and the abstract thinking system.
3. Encourage a self-transcendent purpose for learning. Think back to the academic topics that were just sheer drudgery to learn. You didn’t know why you had to learn this or how it could possibly be relevant to any aspect of your current or future life. You just knew you had to get through it…with a lot of pain. Apologies to all math teachers, this was geometrical proofs for me.
Imagine, though, if before introducing a topic, your teacher asked you about what was important to you, and how you thought you could best make a difference in the world. In other words, helped you think of a self-transcendent purpose for learning. All of a sudden those geometrical proofs would become a little less painful.
This is exactly what researcher David Yeager did. He tested the impact of a self-transcendent purpose for learning—one that affects people or the world beyond the self—versus a self-oriented purpose for learning, such as an interesting or enjoyable career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he found that students who linked their learning with a purpose that was greater than themselves spent more time on tedious academic tasks, which led to increased academic success. They also “literally saw learning tasks differently” by linking them directly to their personally meaningful academic goals.
The Greater Good in Education practice Making Science Meaningful very simply asks students to write a short reflection on how their science learning is useful and relevant to their lives. This research-based practice, which can increase both science grades and interest in science, can easily be adapted to any subject.
I recently came across one of the most hopeful news items that I’ve seen in a long time. The Berkeleyan reported that humanities majors are on the rise at UC Berkeley, up 43% from five years ago, and 73% from 10 years ago. And first-year humanities majors are up a whopping 121% from last year.
Why? One student who switched from political science to philosophy felt that the humanities could help him understand why people had such apathy toward reducing the causes of climate change—his own self-transcendent purpose for learning.
“Philosophy asks more fundamental questions that seem to transcend global topics in terms of their everyday importance,” he explained. “The problem largely has to do with how people have such a hard time comprehending the size and magnitude of the environmental crisis that they often turn apathetic toward it, in response.”
In other words, he realized that the answer to climate change will be found within us—a spiritual task, indeed.