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God of My Children

The impact belief systems have on our happiness

Marjorie Ingall
July 20, 2009
(Jonathan Steuer)
(Jonathan Steuer)

My 4-year-old daughter Maxine has been obsessed with a book about Noah’s Ark (which she calls Noah’s Work of Art). The other day, I asked her about the portrayal of God she was picking up from it. “God is the person who makes the laws,” she said confidently. “And if you break them you are in big, big trouble.”

At 7, Josie has a more complex image of God. “I believe in God except for when I’m angry,” She recently told me. Then she reconsidered. “Well, actually I do believe in God when I’m angry, but I want to be all, ‘I’m ignoring you!’” She’s interested in the idea of the yetzer hatov and the yetzer harah, the good and evil impulses that duel within us. “I think God is a force that tries to persuade us to do something good and tells us not to do something bad, but sometimes we don’t listen,” she said.

I thought about my kids’ different views about God when I read about research into the correlation between spirituality and happiness in children. The study, conducted by Mark Holder and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia, looked at 320 children aged 8 to12 in both public and parochial schools. It used a standard measure called the Spiritual Well-Being Questionnaire to assess kids’ spirituality in four components: Personal (finding meaning and value in one’s life); communal (the quality of interpersonal relationships); environmental (the sense of awe in nature); and transcendental (the relationship one has with something beyond the human level).

The researchers found that children who felt that their lives had meaning and value and who had strong relationships with others (the personal and communal aspects of spirituality) were happier than children who did not feel that way or have those connections.

But religious practices—defined as attending services, praying and meditating—didn’t have a statistically significant impact on the happiness levels.

I’m not so sure you can tease apart spirituality and religion. To Jews, at least, religious practices aren’t limited to prayer and being droned at in shul. A lot of what we do is home-based, tied to food (challah back!), costumes (Purim, anyone?), even camping (building and hanging out in a sukkah). For us, and for people of other faiths, religion is social. Through day schools, synagogue schools, and camps, we build connections and support systems. Holder and his colleagues view such social networks as spirituality-building, not religion-enhancing, but that clean division doesn’t work for me. Judaism emphasizes tikkun olam, healing the world— wouldn’t that fall under the researchers’ definition of the personal and communal aspects of spirituality?

Furthermore, I’m not convinced that spirituality without religion is good for happiness. I used to live in San Francisco, surrounded by nebulous woo-woo performance-art spirituality, which frequently existed in the absence of real community (other than Burning Man) and without any social-justice aspect. Spirituality, for a lot of folks I used to know, consisted of trying to “manifest” what they personally wanted, a la The Secret, a book that makes me want to hurl. (Not that I’m judgy.) And when you’re manifesting doesn’t work, don’t you then feel powerless as well as unmoored to something bigger than yourself?

I’m no researcher, and I’m no rabbi. But one thing is clear to me: Maxine’s view of religion isn’t very nuanced. (Most things are not when you’re a preschooler.) If she were an adult, I could see how her version of God—the celestial big meanie— would have zero correlation with happiness. (And it could drive anyone to God-free no-pressure Bay Area hippie spirituality.) Indeed, in The How of Happiness, an overview of positive psychology and happiness research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, the downside of seeing God as a punitive, controlling force seems clear: several studies have found that people who believe that negative events are God’s punishment for their sins have more depression and poorer health than those without such beliefs.

I hope Maxie will grow into a sense of faith, spirituality, and religion that’s more like her big sister’s. Last year on the Fourth of July, Josie watched the fireworks over the East River while alternately screaming with joy and watching silently with her mouth hanging open. “Your mind is bigger than your head, because your mind can go anywhere,” she told me afterward. Transcendental. And Josie, like all self-righteous seven-year-olds, loves the notion of assisting the downtrodden and saving the planet. That’s communal, environmental, and personal. In short, she gets, and I hope Maxine is starting to get, the notion that helping other people and searching for meaning are both essential parts of our religious tradition.

There’s a project called The Happiness Study, funded by the Steinhardt foundation, that explores how Jewish institutions contribute to four “quality of life outcomes.” These are connectedness to others, having problem-solving skills, having social and emotional competence, and having a sense of meaning and purpose. The theory is that these qualities are malleable in childhood and can increase one’s happiness as an adult. The hope, of course, is that they will make Jews feel more connected to the Jewish community.

Jeffrey Kress, a member of the project team for The Happiness Study and a professor of education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, agrees that religion as well as spirituality can contribute to happiness. “When you have a sense of connection and feelings of belonging, and a sense of purpose and meaning in your life, you have both social support and perhaps the strength to persevere when there are bumps in the road of life,” he says.

In the future, Kress says, he and his colleagues hope to offer insight into the very different takes on spirituality and meaning that people find within Judaism. Is spirituality something that’s really self-directed? Is it more externally related, like tikkun olam? Is it a peak experience—a sort of religious runner’s high we experience only rarely—or a habit, part of the daily fabric of our lives? To me, these are more interesting questions than wondering whether it’s spirituality or religion that makes children—and adults—happy.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.