Tag Religion

Is being spiritual healthy?

girl smelling a flowerIn last week blog’s entry I reviewed a recent study suggesting that religiosity and altruistic behavior are negatively associated in children. In that study, the findings were weak and there were important questions left unaddressed. In this week’s blog entry I would like to quote from two comprehensive reviews of the literature regarding associations with spirituality and religiosity that have appeared in two flagship journals: The American Psychologist and Pediatrics.

The review article in The American Psychologist, by researchers Peter Hill and Kenneth Pargament, can be found here. These are some key quotes:

“…religion and spirituality have been surprisingly robust variables in predicting health-related outcomes.” These include “…heart disease, cholesterol, hypertension, cancer, (and) mortality…”

“…even simplistic religion and spirituality measures…are glorioussignificant predictors of health outcome variables.”

Citing a meta-analytic review (i.e., a study of studies) of nearly 126,000 participants: “…people who scored higher on measures of religious involvement…had 29% higher odds of survival…than people lower in religious involvement.”

“…people who report a closer connection to God experience…less depression and higher self-esteem…less loneliness…greater relational maturity…and greater psychosocial competence…better self-rated health…and better psychological adjustment among people facing a variety of major life stressors, including transplant surgery…medical illness…and natural disasters…”

The review in Pediatrics by researchers Linda L. Barnes, Gregory A. Plotnikoff, Kenneth Fox, and Sara Pendleton can be found here. Here are some key quotes from that article:

diverse happy woman on floor2Regarding youth: “A number of studies suggest that spiritual/religious beliefs and practices may contribute to decreased stress and increased sense of well-being, decreased depressive symptoms, decreased substance abuse…improved recovery from myocardial infarction and enhanced immune system functioning.”

“Instances in which spirituality and coping may intersect for children include nighttime fear, psychiatric problems, suffering, hospitalization, disability, cancer and terminal illness.”

“Spirituality and religious involvement can also help children withstand the emotional assaults of sexual abuse, racism, cultural destruction, and the trauma generated by refugee experience and life in the disenfranchised urban neighborhoods.”

“Low religiosity also tends to be related to higher rates of smoking, drinking, drug use, and adolescent pregnancy.”

Other correlates or religiosity cited in the latter study included baby in shades, good for dev jeopardyless male aggressive sexual behavior, lower delinquency, higher life satisfaction, lower suicidality & increased academic & social competence.

Keep in mind that a correlation tells one nothing about cause and effect (e.g., click here for a demonstration of that truth). However, when study after study, across decades, finds similar positive associations, we can start drawing conclusions. What causes the positive associations is an open discussion (e.g, see Chapter Four of my parenting book), but we are on firm ground to assert that scientific findings indicate that engagement with a spirituality promotes resilience across the lifespan.




Religiousness and Altruism in Kids

microphoneLast week media outlets around the country reported on a study out of the University of Chicago on the relationship between religiosity and altruism in kids. The study can be found here. These are some of the headlines from last week: “Nonreligious children are more generous.” “Religion doesn’t make kids more generous or altruistic, study finds.” “Religion Makes Children More Selfish, Say Scientists.” How this research was portrayed constitutes a case example of what can go wrong when social science research is presented to the public.

The participants of this study were “…1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa).” The key determiner of altruism was how many stickers kids were willing to share with peers. Kids in the non-religious group were willing to share, on average, 4.1 stickers (out of 10) while kids in the Christian group were willing to share 3.3 stickers and kids in the Muslim group were willing to share 3.2 stickers. The researchers also determined that the correlation between the kids’ religiousity and altruism was -.173 (negative correlations mean that when one variable goes up, the other one goes down).

question mark over brainTo better understand the confusion in the reporting I need to explain the term “statistically significant.” Research is always done with samples that hopefully represent the population under study. So, let’s say I’m a researcher that believes that 10 year old boys who eat apples for a year will end up taller than 10 year old boys who eat onions for a year. I then put together a sample of 800 10 year-old boys, half of whom eat the apples and half of whom eat the onions for one year. A test for statistical significance tells me, at the end of my study, whether my sample of 10 year-old boys represents all ten year old boys (the population). Lets say at the end of the year my test of statistical significance says that my results are statistically significant. All that means is that my sample likely represents the entire population (the standard cutoff is 95% likely or higher). However, statistical significance tells me nothing about the meaningfulness of the difference. So, lets say in my study the boys who ate the apples were .84 inches taller than the boys who ate the onions. I can tell the media that there is a significant difference between my two groups, and that would be true. But the media, and the public equate “significant difference” with “meaningful difference” and that would be troubling, especially to onion farmers.

An example of a statistic that speaks to meaning is effect size; .20 is a small effect size, .50 is a moderate effect size and .80 is a large effect size. Moreover, to consider the meaningfulness of correlations, .10 is considered small, .30 moderate and .50 is large.

So, let’s return to the study in question. The effect size on the main analysis (which they didn’t report but which I calculated) is .348, closer to the small category than the moderate category (e.g., there was a .8 sticker difference between the non-religious kids and the Christian kids). Moreover, the negative correlation of -.173 correlation is small.

But, we need to return to my apple-onion study to consider another methodological issue. Researchers commonly collect data on other related variables that might moderate the results. Do the apples and onion diets have differing effects on boys who start out shorter than boys who start out taller? Do boys who are obese have a different outcome than those who are not? Are the results different for boys who exercise than those who don’t? Including measures like these helps researchers to further interpret the meaning and relevance of the results. In well-constructed studies such analyses are common.

In the study in question there were numerous potential moderators that were not investigated. These included the presence of mental health problems among the kids, the level of intelligence of the kids, and the number of siblings in each participant’s household, psychology disciplineto name a few. Moreover, a key potential moderator variable, socio-economic status, was assessed merely by determining the mother’s level of education. So, even though the results are statistically significant, the effect sizes are small and there are many unanswered questions regarding potential moderators of the findings.

Is this study interesting? Yes. Does it make a useful contribution to the literature? Yes. Does it suggest that parents should alter their religious practices based on its findings? Absolutely not. Moreover, there is a great deal of scientific evidence indicating that numerous physical and psychological advantages are associated with religiosity in children. In next week’s blog I will review some of that science.

Talking About Diversity with Your Child

line of kidsWe live in an increasingly multicultural world. This affords us wonderful opportunities for enrichment and synergizing collaborations as well as risks for misunderstanding and alienation. Which way we land in this regard often depends upon how we think and talk about diversity. (I summarize my perspective in an article I recently wrote on “positive multiculturalism” for The Pennsylvania Psychologist. Click here to read that article. While I’m addressing psychologists in the article, there are take away points that support this blog entry.) If we, as parents, can first get behind the idea that diversity enriches us and affords us wonderful opportunities for self-improvement and effective collaborations, the next step is to initiate an ongoing series of dialogues with our kid(s) about these matters.

What happens if we don’t have these discussions? Well, my experience is that,white guy bullhorning a black guy as with other important topics (e.g., sexuality), our kids’ attitudes and behaviors may end up being more influenced by the media they consume or what their friends think than the values and perspectives that we hold dear and embrace. There are so many examples of unfortunate stereotypes being overtly or implicitly advanced in popular media (e.g., there are acceptable uses of the N-word, Islam encourages violence). So, we all have to ask ourselves: who do we want to be the largest influence in the formation of our kids’ attitudes about people who are different from us?

If you agree with the above premises, here are some suggestions for getting started:

blue among red apples• Seek out positive multicultural experiences (e.g., go to an event during Black History month, attend a parade celebrating a different cultural background); then talk about them with your kids. Model that such learning is fascinating.

• When you encounter an “ism” (e.g., racism, sexism, agism) or hurtful behavior or language, ask your child or teen for his or her thoughts about what you witnessed. Ask what it would be like for him or her to experience such.

• Partner with your school’s administration in facilitating training in positive multiculturalism (see the article I mentioned above for a definition of “positive multiculturalism”). Stress the “positive” aspect as, in my experience, diversity training can be done poorly (e.g., stating obvious things in a preachy manner, not promoting interaction, promoting shame).

• Ask that your school integrate issues pertaining to multiculturalism in their bullying policy. For some resources along these line click here.

• In discussions with your kids get a full accounting of their opinions before group of happy young black folkssharing your own, offering empathy and agreement where appropriate. Once it’s your turn, these are some possible teaching points.

√ It is human nature to be impacted by cultural differences and that a denial of these impacts promotes alienation and misunderstanding. (If you’re interested in a fascinating internet based exploration of this try taking Harvard University’s brief Implicit Test. These are the five steps. 1. Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ 2. Click “Demonstration.” 3. Click on “go to the demonstration tests.” 4.  Click on “I wish to proceed” at the bottom. 5. Click on the “Race IAT.” The test doesn’t take long and may offer you some thought provoking results.

√ Those who are different from us (e.g., racially, religiously, sexually) have a ton to teach us about ourselves and the human condition at large and that it is respectful to approach such differences as an open-minded student who wishes to learn more.

one color character rejected by others2√ Certain language is hurtful, even if said in a “joking” fashion. You might ask your child for his or her thoughts about the examples you’ve encountered. Or, use some that follow here (each are real examples of kids trying to be friendly with, or joking with, kids from other races). Calling someone of Middle Eastern heritage a “terrorist.” Approaching an African-American teen with a friendly fist pump, asking “how’s my niggah?!” Asking an Hispanic kid to copy her homework noting “do you believe it’s the White kid who didn’t do her homework while the Hispanic kid did?!” Again, you might ask your child what he or she imagines it might be like to receive such communications.

√ The disparagement of other religions, races, sexual orientations and cultures is a symptom, whether privately held or overtly expressed. Like a fever it can have many causes, but figuring out its cause is a worthy enterprise and may open the door to healing. For a referral, click here.

√ Calling people names is rarely helpful, even when those names are “racist” orone color character rejected by others “bigot.”

√ We begin the deliberation of the value of another human’s behavior based on how loving it is, not based on it’s consistency with our own experience and tradition.

√ Discussions on multiculturalism do well to promote enlightenment, understanding and openness and do less well to promote shame, paralysis and fear of being called a name.

martin luther hate love quoteThis is a journey without end, or at least not until we’re in the casket 😉 And, if you’re like me, segments of this journey will be very confusing and leave you feeling uncertain. But, as I indicated above, such confusions can promote the perspective that we are all students who merely wish to be loving and kind as we learn about our differences.

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