Meditation, crystal therapy, self-help books – think they’re making you happier? Think again. A Brisbane academic has found a strong link between new-age spirituality and poor mental health in young people.
Rosemary Aird examined a possible correlation between new forms of spirituality and mental health as part of her University of Queensland PhD studies.
After surveying more than 3700 Brisbane-based 21-year-olds, she found spirituality and self-focused religions may undermine a person’s mental health.
“I had a look at two different beliefs – one was a belief in God, associated with traditional religions, and the other was the newer belief in a spiritual or higher power other than God,” Dr Aird said.
The research found non-traditional belief was linked with higher rates of anxiety, depression, disturbed and suspicious ways of thinking and anti-social behaviour.
New-age beliefs promote the idea of self-transformation, self-fulfilment and self-enlightenment, which could see many people excluded from a community environment, she said.
“Traditional religion tends to promote the idea of social responsibility and thinking of others’ interests, whereas the new-age movement pushes the idea that we can transform the world by changing ourselves.
“The downside is that people are very much on their own and not part of a community, which may lead to a kind of isolation.”
Young people with new-age beliefs were twice as likely to be more anxious and depressed than those with traditional beliefs, the research found.
About eight per cent of young adults attend church once a week and Dr Aird found this reduced the likelihood of antisocial behaviour in young males, but not females.
However young adults with traditional religious beliefs enjoyed no major benefits.
As people have moved away from traditional religious beliefs in recent times, most have been left with a desire to find meaning and purpose in life, she said.
“People who are into the new-age spirituality tend to shop around and will often borrow from all sorts of old beliefs, like Wicca, witchcraft or Native American religions.
“It’s a whole mish-mash and changes all the time, where they’ll do something for a while before doing something else.”
This lack of routine and stability caused by constantly jumping from one fad to another could lead to a “real confusion”, she said.
“If there’s no sense of any kind of tradition, it means you’re kind of cast adrift and means there’s no fundamental basic thing to hang on to.”
However it’s not just young people embracing new-age spirituality and religious beliefs, with the trend appearing to have started with the baby boomer generation.
And while it’s difficult to measure where people gather their information from, Dr Aird believes technology has played a big part in popularising spirituality.
“Religion and belief has kind of become mixed up with popular culture.
“Look at television and the kinds of shows that we’ve got, like Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Medium.
“They promote witchcraft, special powers and spirituality and the general population and young people especially are exposed to these things and could see them as very attractive.
“People want to find some way of embedding these things into some sort of belief system.”
The popular self-help and how-to book phenomenon has also created a DIY-spirituality process and further removed the community aspect from development and religion, she said.
Dr Aird’s research is the first of its kind in Australia to examine young adults’ religious and spiritual thoughts, behaviour and feelings.
While the study suggests a need for further research into the extent that religious change is linked to population mental health, she admits such a task would be enormous.
“Research used to look only at traditional religion and used things like church attendance as a measurement.
“These people don’t go to church – they’re meditating, they’re reading books, they might be part of a group or just attend courses.
“There’s no way of measuring all of those different types of things.”