New Study Identifies A Predictor For Teens’ Future Happiness

This type of thinking can have a major impact on young people’s satisfaction with their lives.
The predictor, called "transcendent thinking," could grow teens' brains over time, according to researchers.
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The predictor, called "transcendent thinking," could grow teens' brains over time, according to researchers.

Every parent’s wish is for their child to grow up and live a fulfilled, happy life. During the teen years, this desire often leads to a laser-like focus on grades, test scores and the chances of college admission. After all, happiness is hard to come by without the economic security of a steady paycheck. But what if it isn’t a young person’s grades, but the kind of thinking they’re doing — in and outside of school — that sets them up for a happy adulthood?

What kind of thinking promotes teens’ brain development?

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor at the University of Southern California, is part of a group of researchers who have been investigating the way that adolescents’ thinking predicts their brain development. Some of their findings aren’t what you’d expect.

They conducted a study over five years involving 65 participants aged 14-18, all of whom were young people of color living in an urban area.

In one-on-on interviews, the researchers showed the teens what Immordino-Yang described as “really compelling little mini-documentary stories about teenagers from all over the world.” The teens were then asked, “How does this person’s story make you feel?”

“They could kind of say anything they wanted,” Immordino-Yang told HuffPost.

Given the engaging material, it’s not surprising that the teens in the study made connections between the stories and their own lives, as well as big-picture social and moral issues. The researchers call this “transcendent thinking.”

“Transcendent thinking really is meant to capture that propensity to move beyond the current context, build a bigger story and grapple with the psychological kind of meaning or implications that transcend the here and now,” Immordino-Yang said.

While we tend to associate this kind of thoughtfulness with kids who are academic high-achievers, the researchers observed transcendent thinking in their interviews with all of the teens in the study to varying degrees.

“All the kids started to think about these bigger issues spontaneously and to ask us about them, or to try to connect it to their own story or life or bigger ideas, values or beliefs that they hold,” said Immordino-Yang, who noted that “some kids did it far more than others.”

Furthermore, the quantity of transcendent thinking that teens expressed wasn’t correlated with their IQ or markers of socioeconomic status such as their income, ethnic background or parents’ level of education. (For comparison, SAT scores are highly correlated with all of the above.)

Researchers then used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to study the relationship between transcendent thinking, brain activity and brain development over time. They looked at images of the teens’ brains taken both while at rest and while thinking about the stories and measured the degree of connectivity between two major neural networks that get activated when people engage in this kind of thinking.

Then they had the teens return to the lab again two years later for another round of brain scans. They found that the kids who had shown more transcendent thinking showed more brain development over time. Again, this was independent of IQ and socioeconomic status. The more transcendent thinking a teen showed initially, the more brain growth was measured.

In subsequent follow-up surveys over the next three years as the teens moved into adulthood, researchers found that the degree of brain development they showed had a big impact on their lives overall.

What is the connection between transcendent thinking and a happy life?

In follow-up surveys, the young adults were asked questions about their identity development and life satisfaction, such as how much they liked themselves and how they felt about their relationships with others. What the researchers found was that teens whose brains showed more growth — not just more transcendent thinking but more development in their brains over time — scored higher on these measures of well-being.

“What we found is that the degree of brain growth — but not the original thinking in the interview, you actually have to do the work of growing your brain — is associated with also growing who you are,” Immordino-Yang said. “And then that identity development in turn, a year and a half or two years later, predicted how satisfied kids were with their lives and how much they liked themselves.”

In the study, the researchers propose a “developmental cascade” effect in which transcendent thinking leads to brain growth, which in turn leads to life satisfaction.

Immordino-Yang emphasized that each step in this process is crucial.

“You couldn’t go straight from the thinking in the interview all the way to the young adult outcomes,” she said. “You have to go through the work of growing yourself.”

What are the implications for the way we raise and educate teens?

Immordino-Yang believes that these findings are good news for teens, parents and teachers. They support a growth mindset, in which intelligence is not a fixed characteristic but one whose development can be fostered over time. A teen’s brain changes as they grow up, and we can help shape this neurodevelopment by giving teens ample opportunities to think in a “transcendent” way.

Instead of focusing on the end goals of test scores or grades, educators might hone in on the processes by which kids learn, maximizing the kinds of experiences that support brain growth.

“I think we really need to attend closely to not just what teenagers know how to do and what they know, but also how they come to know it,” Immordino-Yang said.

She added that teens’ curiosity and their willingness to rethink issues and weigh multiple perspectives “seem to be a really important force in teenagers’ development in terms of their well-being, in terms of their productivity, and in terms of their successful transitions to young adulthood.”

Unfortunately, instead of encouraging kids to challenge authority and ask probing questions, our current educational system often rewards unquestioning compliance.

“Our standard structures and traditional ways of engaging adolescents in education in middle and high school tend not to support these dispositions of mind, and, in many cases, they actually punish them,” Immordino-Yang said. Instead, she believes we should be encouraging kids to think deeply and critically and to ask, “Why?”

Lisa Miller, who is not connected to the study, is a professor at Columbia University Teacher’s College and the author of “The Spiritual Child: New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving.” The potential of transcendent thinking complements her own work regarding the importance of teens finding a deeper meaning in their lives.

“There’s multiple ways of knowing,” Miller told HuffPost. Schooling tends to place “a great emphasis on logic and empiricism,” she said, but “that alone is insufficient. Narrow, strategic and tactical thinking alone is insufficient. There needs to be a fresh, innovative, bottom-up creative way of thinking.”

In order to cultivate their happiness and prevent what Miller calls the “diseases of despair” that have become epidemic in Gen Z, kids need to tap into something that is bigger than them. Whether they refer to it as intuition, spiritual awareness or a mystical connection, research shows that spirituality can be a helpful preventive of depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts.

Miller said it’s also impactful “if a parent talks about their own higher power, if the parent talks about their own struggle, pain or grappling, and then has a breakthrough that’s bigger than the sum of the parts.”

Just as the researchers in the study used real stories to evoke transcendent thinking, parents can tell their own stories to model different kinds of meaning-making for their kids.

The research, Immordino-Yang said, offers a “piece of scientific evidence3 that these alternative ways of educating may actually grow the brain in ways that are instrumental to healthy young adulthood.”


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