For decades, well-being in adulthood has followed what social scientists call a “U-pattern”: higher well-being in young adults, a trough in middle life, and a increased well-being at older ages.
But earlier this year, Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program released disturbing results showing that the left side of this U-curve has completely flattened out. The well-being of young adults has declined significantly relative to that of older age groups – a much larger decline for age than for any other variable, such as gender or background.
As the review states JAMA Psychiatry, “Our results confirm the existence of a mental health crisis and an increase in loneliness. Both of these factors disproportionately affect young adults. and extend “to multiple additional facets of well-being beyond mental health”. Happiness, physical health, common sense, character, social relationships, and financial stability have all declined significantly among young adults.
According to Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele, one of the study’s authors, it goes beyond a mental health crisis.
A looming crisis
The potential causes of the youth mental health crisis are the subject of an ongoing cultural debate. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness recently suggested, “the fact of being constantly in comparison and always having challenges to meet to stay up to scratch” of social media, the fact that the technological world imposes that it is necessary “always be connected”the grief and fear resulting from a global crisis and finally the constant access to disturbing news all certainly play a role.
But the decline in well-being suggests that something even more fundamental is at work. Dr. VanderWeele evokes a crisis of meaning and identity, and therefore a crisis of belonging. Her findings agree with those of Columbia University’s Lisa Miller, whose extensive work as a clinical psychologist and brain researcher led her to conclude that “lack of support for children’s spiritual growth” contributes to alarming rates of depression, substance abuse, addictive behaviors and diminished well-being. For what is set aside is the innate set of abilities to experience connection, unity, love and a sense of being guided by a higher life force that connects us to others in a sacred way.
The role of religion
As Drs. VanderWeele and Miller note, religion has traditionally provided this essential support with very important implications for adolescent development and health. Evidence indicates that religious involvement may have more profound health effects in adolescence than in adulthood, with far-reaching implications across the lifespan. In 2003, a meta-analysis on the role of religion in adolescent life attempted to summarize what was known so far.
Among other positive effects, the report found striking and consistent relationships between adolescent spirituality and healthy lifestyle behaviors, a modest relationship between spirituality and self-esteem, and “modest protective effects” against alcohol, smoking and drug use. Spirituality, however, had a strong impact on sexual activity. Young people were generally less eager to have sex and showed less risky behaviors overall.
Recent research integrating more robust methodological concepts has confirmed the results of these other cross-sectional studies: religious habits in adolescence are associated with greater psychological well-being, more strength of character and lower risks of disease. mental. For example, a recent longitudinal study of a representative sample of adolescents showed that religious attendance reduced the odds of drug use, risky sexual behaviors and depression. Dr Miller also found that teens who had a positive and active relationship with spirituality were significantly less likely to use and abuse substances (40% less), to suffer from depression (60%) or to have risky or unprotected sex (80%).
Why does religion have an impact?
Understanding the mechanisms by which religion has a positive impact on the development of adolescents and young adults allows us to better understand the extent of its influence. Previous research has suggested that religion is primarily about self-control, its role overall is to encourage adolescents to “not do something rash”. But it quickly became apparent that a more versatile theory of religious influence was needed. It is particularly interesting to study how religion shapes young people through their families.
As noted in the 2003 meta-analysis, research confirms what follows ” common sense “namely that parents and their own religious practices are among “the strongest influences on adolescent religious behavior”. This means, of course, that parents model and teach religious behavior. But it also means that the parents themselves were shaped by religion.
Christian Smith’s extensive research on adolescent spirituality has led him to formulate three additional mechanisms through which religion positively impacts the well-being of adolescents and young adults. First, religion provides a set of moral criteria that delineate right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable ways of being, and an emphasis on virtue, which involves self-control, a strong sense of existence and purpose, and compassion for others. Second, religious habits build skills, including coping skills, knowledge, and cultural capital, which improve health, social status, and “life chances”. Finally, religion makes it possible to establish relational links with adults and people of one’s own age. These represent useful resources and opportunities, emotional support and guidance in their development. Some are models of accomplished lives who can inspire them.
Dr. Miller’s research, which draws on MRI brain images, points to an even more fundamental reality about religious commitment, with particular significance given the unique challenges of today’s teens and young adults. Dr. Miller has identified areas of the brain specifically geared towards the capacity for transcendent awareness. As his research on brain imaging indicates, each person is born with a set of perceptual capacities to connect to the transcendent, through which we experience unity, love and connection, and feel supported and guided. When we “make full use” of these natural abilities, our brains become structurally warmer, resulting in a thicker cortex in regions of perception, increased access to psychological benefits including reduced depression, anxiety, and substance abuse , and increased access to positive psychological traits, including courage, resilience, optimism, and creativity.
Healing a struggling generation
These realities have particular significance given the crises of perception of meaning, identity and connection in adolescents and young adults. In fact, as Dr. Miller explains, it is the strength and use of these natural spiritual abilities that enable adolescents and young adults to pass “from loneliness and isolation to connection”de competition and division to compassion and altruism, from a focus on our wounds, problems and losses to “an opening to the journey of life”. This feeling of connection to a transcendent source allows the adolescent to go beyond a “identity model in pieces” and one “fragmented and fragmented vision of self”, she affirms, to achieve a deep awareness of “what we are to each other” and a way of being based on love and connection.
But if this innate spiritual capacity is not nurtured, it atrophies. This is why Dr Miller, Dr VanderWeele and others are particularly concerned that today’s young adults have grown up much less likely to have attended formal religious services or to have observed religious behavior in their parents. Religious identity has known nearly three decades of steady decline, so Gen Z is the least religious generation to date.
For Dr Miller, this means that the innate capacity for transcendence – with all that it entails in terms of strengthening meaning, identity and connection – is totally untrained for the vast majority of adolescents and young people. adults.
No wonder our young people are in such a crisis. At the same time, research has led to a better understanding that spirituality, whether linked (as it most often is) to a religious tradition or not, is fundamental to our individual and social well-being. This increased understanding provides powerful direction for healing a struggling generation of lonely teenagers and young adults.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Epoch Times.
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The crisis of young adult well-being and the decline of spirituality