Around the globe, the vast majority of young people share a conviction that life has a spiritual dimension. Seventy-five percent in a recent survey believe in God or a higher power. And while some can't easily define spirituality, the majority say they have had a transcendent experience, believe in life after death, and think it's "probably true" that all living things are connected.
For two years, a project involving some 7,000 youths ages 12 to 25 in 17 countries has explored spiritual beliefs and experiences – and found youths eager to discuss them. It's the most ambitious such project to date.
"It's how I see good in the world," explains participant Ryan Mooney, a college freshman in Portland, Ore., who is Jewish but spends hours reading the teachings of other faiths. "That all these religions formed by different societies come around to this sentiment of striving toward goodness gives me faith in the world."
The initial findings were released Wednesday by the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based independent research group. The group intends to plumb the results further and carry out additional research in countries around the world.
"I was surprised by the similarities we found across different cultures, even though they may have different languages and worldviews," says Eugene Roehlkepartain, the Search Institute's vice president. The institute hopes to encourage a broader look at the impact of spiritual development on other aspects of life.
Along with partner organizations, the institute conducted surveys in eight countries, focus groups in 13 nations, and in-depth interviews with young people whom others consider to be "spiritual exemplars." The youths represented more than a dozen faiths as well as nonbelievers.
The results of the report – "With Their Own Voices: A Global Exploration of How Today's Young People Think About and Experience Spiritual Development" – can't be considered representative of the countries or traditions, Mr. Roehlkepartain cautions.
But they "help us understand the dynamics of what is happening with young people. Kids live in a global world today, and to understand them, we need to see them in a global context."
Religion has trumped spirituality as a topic of study in the past, says Roehlkepartain. A study released last spring by the German research firm Berthlesmann Stiftung found that 85 percent of young people in 21 nations called themselves religious, and 44 percent said they were deeply religious.
In the US, a UCLA study of undergraduates from 2003 to 2007 broke some ground on spirituality. It found that while attendance at religious services decreased dramatically for most, their overall level of spirituality – defined as seeking meaning in life and developing values and self-understanding – increased.
When asked what it means to be spiritual, young people in the Search survey most commonly responded: believing there is a purpose to life, believing in God, or being true to one's inner self. In Thailand and Cameroon, "being a moral person" made the top three. "Having a deep sense of inner peace and happiness" was highly valued in Canada and the US.
Young people see spiritual development as both "part of who you are" and an intentional choice, the study shows. As a young man from South Africa puts it, "The more spiritual you are, the more you understand. It's like sport, everyone can do sport, but the more you do it, the better you get at it."
Some 55 percent felt their spirituality had increased over the past two or three years. Emma, a young Christian in the United Kingdom, said that "the ideal spiritual person is somebody who spends as much time as possible with God," which she does through daily prayer, devotional reading, and social activism.
Young people say they engage in a range of activities and practices to nurture spiritual growth. The most common include reading books, praying or meditating alone, and helping others.
But practice varies greatly. Youths from Australia and the UK were the least likely to ever engage in such activities, while youths in Cameroon, the US, and India were the most likely to do so.
On several scales measuring spiritual concerns, Australia, the UK, and Ukraine showed much lower values than other countries. For instance, while only 7 percent of youths overall did not see a spiritual dimension to life, among young Australians, that figure was 28 percent.
More than three-quarters of those surveyed said their spiritual development was enhanced by time in nature, from music, and from helping other people in their community. The project revealed that "serving people out of your spiritual conviction" holds young people together and can bridge differences," says Roehlkepartain.
Arin Ghosh, a Hindu college student in California, has found his calling in working with the handicapped and with youths. "It's one thing to believe in religion and another to practice it and the moral values it teaches," he says in an interview. "Your personal connection to God is important, but spirituality is based in serving God through serving others."
Identified as one of the "exemplars," Arin is also active in interfaith work. "When people become more spiritual, they are more open to others and other viewpoints," he says.
While the youths see a difference between religion and spirituality, the great majority said they view both as "usually good." An Australian teen explains the difference this way: "Religion is kind of knowing the things in your head, but 'spiritual' is knowing them in your heart."
When asked which people, groups, or institutions were most helpful in their spiritual life, 44 percent named family. Between one-third and one-half, however, had not engaged in spiritual or religious activities with parents in the past year. Just 14 percent mentioned their religious institution as helpful, and close to 20 percent said "no one."
The institute wants to encourage parents, friends, and others to fill this vacuum. "Young people expressed to us some hunger to talk about spiritual development," Roehlkepartain says, "and we want people to say, 'If that's what kids in the survey think, what about the kids I know?'