Araina Bond (Ottawa Citizen): Want your children to be happy? Help them develop their spiritual side, researchers say
When Kayleigh Brown began to suffer severe, unexplained knee pain that kept her from doing yoga and the sports she loved, at first she was upset.
Each time her knee flared up, she visited countless experts, from doctors to physiotherapists to naturopaths, but no one could pinpoint the cause. It was a frustrating, discouraging experience — especially for a 12-year-old — but young Kayleigh found strength and resilience in a daily ritual: her evening aspiration.
“Each morning when we wake up and each night before we go to bed, we take some time to be thankful for the world around us and think about the other people we’re sharing it with,” Kayleigh says of her ritual. “Realizing there are lots of other children out there in the world who may be going through the same thing and wishing they wouldn’t feel pain helped me feel better.”
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A new study shows that the positive effect Kayleigh felt by focusing on something bigger than herself may be one of the keys to happiness.
“Until recently, there has been very little research done on happiness in children and almost nothing on spirituality in children,” says Mark Holder, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and co-author of a recent study on spirituality in children aged nine to 12.
One of the findings that surprised the researchers, Holder says, is that spirituality – having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life as well as a connection to something larger than your personal experience – has a big influence on children’s happiness.
“In our other studies we have shown that family income and the marital status of parents accounts for less than one per cent of children’s happiness,” he explains. “But a child’s spirituality accounts for up to 26 per cent.”
Another compelling finding was that there are striking differences between the paths by which adults and children find happiness. For example, spirituality can account for only four to five per cent of adults’ happiness, though being religious — which doesn’t give children a boost – does raise adults’ contentedness levels.
Holder believes that one of the reasons being religious – defined as attending services of worship – may not affect a child’s mood is because many children don’t attend voluntarily; their parents make them go. Spirituality, however, comes from within.
Kayleigh’s mother Sheila Craig believes connecting with that spirituality can be fun for children.
A Buddhist, Craig teaches the children’s group at the Ottawa Shambhala Meditation Centre, where one of her students’ favourite practices, called Candy Meditation, involves eating two candies either really slowly or really quickly and noticing the difference in taste, texture, enjoyment. The children then eat a third candy whichever way they like.
“This helps the kids slow down and focus on the moment, instead of having their minds go in 10 directions,” Craig says, adding that feeling connected to the moment you’re in is a big component of being spiritual. “It’s amazing to see the transformation kids can go through when they get in touch with their spiritual sides.”
Craig also owns and operated Windhorse Yoga in Wellington Village and teaches children’s yoga in schools.
“Even the toughest kids, who start off goofing around, usually end up connecting with a calmer, more contented part of themselves.”
Believing in something greater than yourself affects happiness because it gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, explains Dr. Sonja Lyumbomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.
Lyumbomirsky also believes that the benefits of spirituality are much larger than just one child’s personal happiness.
Happy people, she has found, are not only healthier, but also “more creative, helpful, charitable and self-confident, have better self-control, and show greater self-regulatory and coping abilities.”
That means that by helping your child enjoy the advantages of being spiritual, you’re also making the world a better place. Now who can argue with that?
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