The spiritual lives of Israeli teens

“Spirituality is a unique strength that fosters positive outcomes. It’s an important area of development that’s worth attending to,” Kor said.

July 24, 2019 16:02
The spiritual lives of Israeli teens

DR. STEVEN TZVI PIRUTINSKY: ‘It’s an ongoing process. The growth matters.’. (photo credit: CHANA ITZKOWITZ)

How does spirituality contribute to the emotional health of teenagers? In a recently published study, researchers found that having a spiritual component in their lives makes teens both happier and more compassionate.
“A Longitudinal Study of Spirituality, Character Strengths, Subjective Well-Being, and Prosociality in Middle School Adolescents” was published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology earlier this year.
Beginning in 2015, a team of researchers from Touro College and Columbia University in New York, working in cooperation with the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, studied 1,352 Israeli middle school students, most of them Jewish, in order to determine whether having a healthy spiritual life would benefit teens.
They found that positive qualities such as hope, love, humor, optimism and the willingness to help others were all highly related to spirituality. Interestingly, intellectual strengths were not found to be at all related.
Led by Prof. Anat Shoshani, a team of dozens of researchers and research assistants at IDC’s Maytiv Center for the Research and Application of Positive Psychology helped design and conduct the study.
Study participants included middle school students from eight schools across Israel, ranging from public schools to schools in the haredi sector.
The essential question researchers wanted to answer was whether spirituality is simply another way of referring to positive personality characteristics or is something distinct.
Steven Pirutinsky, assistant professor of clinical social work at Touro College and coauthor of the study, noted that they are now able to conclude that “spirituality represents a separate set of experiences and characteristics.”
Pirutinsky is an Orthodox psychologist. He attended yeshiva at the Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ. He earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University. Pirutinsky maintains a clinical practice in Lakewood, in addition to his active research interests.  He is particularly focused on the connection between religiosity and psychology.
Researchers were also interested in finding out about whether spirituality remained stable over time. Thus, participants were evaluated over four years. Pirutinsky shared an interesting finding that “adolescents who are growing in spirituality have better outcomes if they continued to grow. Those who continued to grow in spirituality had the highest [measure of] life satisfaction, higher even than students who started with high spirituality but were stable.
“It speaks to spirituality as not something you acquire at one time. It’s an ongoing process. The growth matters.”
The student participants were 85% Jewish and 15% Christian or Muslim.
“One of the strengths of the study is that we were looking at spirituality that is, to some degree, transcultural. It’s likely that these findings will apply outside of Israel as well,” Pirutinsky said.
Researchers were also interested in the development of spirituality. What does it look like as it is developing? How do people form their spiritual identities?
In order to measure their spiritual development, participants were asked to rate themselves on a few dozen statements such as:
• When you have decisions to make in your daily life, how often do you ask yourself what God would want you to do?
• My spiritual beliefs help me figure out and prioritize what is most important in life.
• In my life, I experience the presence of the Divine
• My faith/spirituality helps me know right from wrong.
• Every day I see evidence that God or a higher force is active in the world, and I seek out opportunities to help me grow spiritually.
• I believe all things in the world are connected to each other.
Pirutinsky outlined some of the study’s most significant findings.
“Spirituality has been found to shield adolescents against risky behavior, such as delinquency, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, [as well as] emotional problems, such as depression, anxiety and suicidality.”
Spirituality as “a human character strength” also grants teens greater ability to deal with challenges. “Spirituality is significantly associated with indicators of subjective well-being – higher levels of positive emotions and more life satisfaction,” he noted.
In simpler terms, teens who possess a measure of spiritual awareness tend to be more compassionate toward others in need, get more involved in communal projects of various kinds and are more socially successful among their peers. Spirituality provides a source of optimism and helps prevent teens from experiencing depression during challenging times.
“We found that as they flourished spiritually, they flourished interpersonally, and their mental health and satisfaction improved,” Pirutinsky indicated. He theorized: “It may be that spirituality gives teenagers a heightened sense of purpose, a connection to themselves and the Divine, and provides comfort during difficult or sad times.”
Interestingly, the study didn’t find any statistically significant differences between genders. And since only 15% of the participants were not Jewish, researchers concluded that there was not a large enough sample to draw any conclusions about whether there were significant differences between Jewish and non-Jewish students.

What is spirituality?
It isn’t easy to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Pirutinsky explained that the issue is “much debated theoretically and in religious circles.” His take is that “spirituality is the private relational aspect with something that is sacred to the individual. Religion is more culturally determined; it’s more about theology and God [and includes] more of a public and social piece.”
For the purposes of this study, researchers described spirituality as “the private, intimate relationship between a person and a transcendent, sacred and divine force, as well as the activities, experiences and virtues derived from this relationship.” And researchers concluded that “spirituality is a distinct aspect of youth character” that can be measured as well as nurtured.
Historically, researchers have paid scant attention to the spiritual lives of teens. That gap has been addressed by this massive study.
Pirutinsky said, “We wanted to look at spirituality as an independent character trait as well as to see how it unfolds in adolescence.”
Dr. Ariel Kor, Adjunct Assistant Prof. at Yale Medical School, lecturer at IDC and lead author on the study, elaborated. “In a country polarized by social and religious divisions, we often ignore and dismiss the role spirituality can play as a protective factor for well-being and thriving.”
Since it is so linked to a range of positive outcomes, spirituality needs to be explicitly nurtured in middle school.
“Spirituality is a unique strength that fosters positive outcomes. It’s an important area of development that’s worth attending to,” Kor said.
The results of the study point to a clear need for youth educators, policy-makers and parents to develop spirituality education. Study authors point out that Jewish religious youth groups such as Bnei Akiva and Ariel already use “a range of approaches, such as exposing children to religious ideas, texts, practices, meditation, gratitude exercises and traditions. But very few of these approaches are evidence-based.”
Aside from youth groups, Kor noted that in Israel, there are “very few [educational interventions that incorporate spirituality]. In the US, there are a few. However, they are few and far between. Spirituality is controversial, as it is often perceived as religious.”
Despite the controversy, there is a clear need to develop more interventions to help adolescents develop their spiritual side, so that they and society can enjoy the benefits that accrue from doing so.

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