- Young adults today have grown up far less likely to have participated in formal worship services or observed religious behaviors in their parents. Tweet This
- The well-being of young adults has dramatically declined compared to older age groups—a decline that is much larger for age than for any other variable, including gender or race. Tweet This
- Religious participation in adolescence is associated with greater psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness. Tweet This
For decades, well-being across adulthood has followed what social scientists call a “U-shaped pattern:” higher well-being in young adulthood, a dip during midlife, and increased well-being in older age. But earlier this year, the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University released troubling findings showing that there has been a complete flattening out of the left side of this U-curve. The well-being of young adults has dramatically declined compared to older age groups—a decline that is much larger for age than for any other variable, including gender or race.
As reported in JAMA Psychiatry, “Our findings support evidence of a mental health crisis and increase in loneliness in the U.S. that has disproportionately affected young adults” and extends “to multiple additional facets of well-being beyond mental health.” Happiness, physical health, meaning, character, social relationships, and financial stability have all significantly declined for young adults. In Vanderweele’s words, this goes beyond a mental health crisis, with “potentially dire implications for the future of our nation.”
Potential causes for the mental health crisis among youth and young adults have been part of an ongoing cultural discussion. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness recently suggested, social media’s “constant comparisons and challenges to keep up with the pressure to perform,” the expectation that you need to “always be on” that is part of a technological world, the grief and fear resulting from a global crisis, and constant access to troubling news cycles surely all play a role.
But the decline across so many aspects of well-being suggests something even more fundamental is at work. Vanderweele calls it a crisis in meaning and identity, and with it, a crisis in connection. His conclusions parallel those of Columbia University’s, Lisa Miller, whose extensive work as a clinical psychologist and brain researcher led her to conclude that it is “the absence of support for children’s spiritual growth”—the innate set of perceptual capacities through which we experience connection, unity, love and a sense of guidance from the life force within in and through us—that has contributed to alarming rates of depression, substance abuse, addictive behaviors, and decreased well-being.
Evidence suggests that religious involvement may have even more profound health effects for adolescence than for adulthood, with far reaching implications across the life course.
As Vanderweele and Miller both note, religion has traditionally supplied this essential support with significant implications for adolescent development and health. In fact, evidence suggests that religious involvement may have even more profound health effects for adolescence than for adulthood, with far reaching implications across the life course. A 2003 review of research on the role of religion in the lives of American adolescents attempted to summarize what was known up to that time. Among other positive effects, the report found striking and consistent relationships between adolescent religiosity and healthy lifestyle behaviors, a modest relationship between religiosity and self-esteem and moral self-worth, and “modest protective effects” against alcohol, smoking, and drug use. Stronger effects were reported for sexual activity with multiple facets of religiosity, including attendance, the importance of faith, and denomination, typically predicting later sexual engagement and less risky behaviors.
Recent research incorporating more robust methodological designs has confirmed what these other cross-sectional studies found: religious participation in adolescence is associated with greater psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness. For example, a recent longitudinal study of a nationally representative sample of adolescents found that religious observance reduced probabilities for drug use, risky sexual behaviors, and depression. Lisa Miller similarly found that adolescents who had a positive, active relationship to spirituality were significantly less likely to use and abuse substances (40% less likely), experience depression (60%), or engage in risky or unprotected sex (80%).
Understanding the mechanisms through which religion positively impacts adolescent and young adult development further clarifies the expanse of its influence. Previous research suggested that religion was largely about social control—encouraging adolescents “not do something they otherwise might have done.” But it quickly became clear that a more multi-faceted theory of religious influence was necessary, including how religion shapes them through the families in which they grow up. As noted in the 2003 review of research, research consistently confirms the “common sense notion” that parents and their own religious practices are among “the strongest influences on the religious behavior of adolescents.” That means, of course, how parents model and teach religious behaviors. But it also means that religion shapes how parents relate to their children, whether in more authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive ways, influencing the quality of the relationship through which their religious beliefs are transmitted.
Christian Smith’s extensive research of adolescent religiosity led him to articulate three additional mechanisms through which religion positively impacts adolescent and young adult well-being. First, religion provides a set of moral orders that delineate good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable ways of being, and a focus on “virtuousness,” including self-regulation, a strong sense of self, and compassion for others. Second, religious participation builds competencies, including coping skills, knowledge, and cultural capital, that strengthen health, social status, and “life chances.” Finally, religious participation opens relationship ties with adults and peers who provide helpful resources and opportunities, emotional support and guidance in development, and models of demonstrated life paths from which to pattern their own lives.
Religious participation in adolescence is associated with greater psychological well-being, character strengths, and a lower risk of mental illness.
Lisa Miller’s research drawing on MRI images of the brain suggests an even more foundational reality about religious engagement with particular importance given the unique challenges of today’s adolescents and young adults. Miller has identified areas in the brain oriented specifically to the capacity for transcendent awareness. As her brain imaging research indicates, each person is born with a set of perceptual capacities to connect with the transcendent through which we experience unity, love and connection, and a sense that we are held and guided. When we “make full use” of these natural capacities, our brains become structurally heathier indicated by a thicker cortex in the regions of perception, increasing access to psychological benefits including less depression, anxiety, substance abuse and to positive psychological traits including grit, resilience, optimism, and creativity.
These realities have particular significance given the crisis of meaning, identity, and connection among adolescents and young adults. In fact, as Miller articulates, it is the strength and use of these natural spiritual capacities that allows adolescents and young adults to move from “loneliness and isolation to connection; from competition and division to compassion and altruism; from an entrenched focus on our wounds, problems, and losses to an openness to the journey of life.” That sense of connection to a transcendent source takes an adolescent beyond a “pieces and parts model of identity” and “a splintered, fragmented view of self,” she argues, to a deep awareness of “who we are to one another” and a way of being built on love and connection.
But if that innate spiritual capacity is not nourished, it will atrophy. That is why Miller, Vanderweele, and others are particularly concerned that young adults today have grown up far less likely to have participated in formal worship services or observed religious behaviors in their parents. As AEI’s Daniel Cox recently reported, American religious identity has experienced “nearly three decades of consistent decline,” so that Generation Z is “the least religious generation yet.” For Miller, that means the hardwired capacity for transcendence—with all that it means in strengthening meaning, identity, and connection—is completely unformed for the vast majority of adolescence and young adults.
No wonder, then, that our young people are in such a crisis. At the same time, there is now greater research-informed understanding that spirituality, whether tied (as it most often is) to a religious tradition or not, is fundamental to our individual and social well-being. That increased understanding provides direction for a potentially powerful key to healing a generation of lonely and struggling adolescents and young adults.
Jenet Erickson is a Research Fellow of The Wheatley Institution and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.