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updated 1/9/2009 1:43:39 PM ET 2009-01-09T18:43:39

The link between spirituality and happiness is pretty well-established for teens and adults. More spirituality brings more happiness. Now a study has reached into the younger set, finding the same link in "tweens" and in kids in middle childhood.

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Specifically, the study shows that children who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, quality relationships — both measures of spirituality, the researchers claim — are happier. 

Personal aspects of spirituality (meaning and value in one's own life) and communal aspects (quality and depth of inter-personal relationships) were both strong predictors of children's happiness, said study leader Mark Holder from the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues Ben Coleman and Judi Wallace.

However, religious practices were found to have little effect on children's happiness, Holder said.

Religion is just one institutionalized venue for the practice of or experience of spirituality, and some people say they are spiritual but are less enthusiastic about the concept of God.

Other research has shown a connection between well-adjusted and well-behaved children and religion, but that is not the same, necessarily, as happiness.

Spirituality trumps temperament
In an effort to identify strategies to increase children's happiness, Holder and colleagues set out to better understand the nature of the relationship between spirituality, religiousness and happiness in children aged 8 to 12 years.

A total of 320 children, from four public schools and two faith-based schools, completed six different questionnaires to rate their happiness, their spirituality, their religiousness and their temperament. Parents were also asked to rate their child's happiness and temperament.

A child's temperament was also an important predictor of happiness. In particular, happier children were more sociable and less shy. The relationship between spirituality and happiness remained strong, even when the authors took temperament into account.

However, counterintuitively, religious practices — including attending church, praying and meditating — had little effect on a child's happiness.

And therein may lie some useful information for parents.

"Enhancing personal meaning may be a key factor in the relation between spirituality and happiness," the researchers stated. Strategies aimed at increasing personal meaning in children  — such as expressing kindness towards others and recording these acts of kindness, as well as acts of altruism and volunteering — may help to make children happier, Holder suggests.

These findings were detailed in the Dec. 11 online edition of the Journal of Happiness Studies.

More on teens and spirituality
Another research project recently added weight to previously known links between spirituality and happiness among teens.

This researchers compared teenagers with the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with their healthy peers. The analysis showed that while spirituality helped all the kids cope, it was especially helpful for the ones with IBD (which causes abdominal pain and other nasty symptoms, as well as higher risk for psychosocial difficulties and mental health problems; it is more serious than and not the same as IBS or spastic colon). The exact cause of IBD is not known, and there is no cure.

The researchers, Dr. Michael Yi and Sian Cotton at the University of Cincinnati, defined spirituality as one's sense of meaning or purpose in life or one's sense of connectedness to the sacred or divine. Again, they weren't talking about religion, church, temple or mosque.

Teams led by Yi and Cotton collected data on socio-demographics, functional health status and psychosocial characteristics as well as spiritual well-being for 67 patients with IBD and 88 healthy adolescents between the ages of 11 and 19.

One of the most important predictors of poorer overall quality of life for both the healthy and the sick teens was having a poorer sense of spiritual well-being, Yi said, although personal characteristics such as self esteem, family functioning and social support were similar between adolescents with IBD and their healthy peers.

Less depression, more well-being
Cotton's analysis of the same 155 adolescents found that higher levels of spiritual well-being were associated with fewer depressive symptoms and better emotional well-being.

"However, even though both healthy adolescents and those with IBD had relatively high levels of spiritual well-being, the positive association between spiritual well-being and mental health outcomes was stronger in the adolescents with IBD as compared to their healthy peers," Cotton said, noting that this indicates spiritual well-being may play a different role for teens with a chronic illness in terms of impacting their health or helping them cope.

The results were detailed in recent online versions of the Journal of Pediatrics and the Journal of Adolescent Health. Yi's and Cotton's research was funded by career development awards by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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