The topic of my dissertation was on how spirituality and morality interact among teenagers. I wanted to know how spirituality influences adolescents’ decisions to engage in moral behaviors and refrain from immoral behaviors. I surveyed almost 500 kids at a local Christian summer camp on their levels of spirituality and their plans to engage or refrain from certain behaviors. The unsurprising finding was that higher levels of spirituality helped to promote positive behaviors, like volunteering, and to prevent negative behaviors, like alcohol use and cheating. Numerous studies have demonstrated that spirituality is important in healthy adolescent development and moral development. Other findings were more surprising:
· The teenagers were largely influenced by their attitudes towards the behaviors. If they thought it would be fun, they were going to do it. If they thought it would be boring or unpleasant, they were not going to do it. Whether or not they thought the behavior was moral or immoral had much less influence.
· Spirituality was related with whether or not teenagers find a behavior fun or not. Of course, spirituality was related to whether they found the behaviors moral or immoral but that was not surprising. What was surprising was that spirituality actually changes what they enjoy.
· The reason spirituality seems to positively influence morality appears to be due to the fact that spirituality makes moral behaviors, like volunteering, seem like fun and immoral behaviors, like drinking or cheating, seem unpleasant. This is very different from thinking that spirituality helps adolescents do the right thing because they believe it is moral even though they want to do something else.
· Contrary to popular perceptions, these teenagers were not heavily influenced by peer pressure, as the views of others played only a small part in whether they planned to engage in the behaviors.
By the way, I use “spirituality” as shorthand for a number of variables, including beliefs about God, religious motivation, and belief in Jesus Christ. I believe strongly that spirituality is multi-faceted. I should also point out that these findings really only apply to highly religious Christian teenagers, since that was the sample I looked at. The big picture is that my research suggests that spirituality really can have a profound effect not just on our minds, which make judgments about right and wrong, but also on our hearts, which can find enjoyment and satisfaction in doing the right things.