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An Open Letter To Gen Z: Why Spirituality May Help Ease Your Suffering

Lisa Miller, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology & NY Times Bestseller By Lisa Miller, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology & NY Times Bestseller
Lisa Miller, Ph.D., is the New York Times bestselling author of The Spiritual Child and her new book, The Awakened Brain; The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life. She is a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she is the Founder and Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, the first Ivy League graduate program and research institute in spirituality and psychology, and has held over a decade of joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical School. Her innovative research has been published in more than one hundred peer-reviewed articles in leading journals, including Cerebral Cortex, The American Journal of Psychiatry, and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
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Dear Generation Z,

I totally blew it. Sunday night I rushed to Miami International Airport and waited for the last flight to New York so that I could teach at Teachers College the next day. I had not heard the blasting voice on the concourse PA calling out my name to "come now or yield the last seat" on the flight home. Out of breath and exhausted, I approached the door to the jet bridge. The managing agent was firm, bordering on aggressive. "Sorry, ma'am," they said. "You missed the announcement. You were not paying attention because you were on your phone, and now this flight is full and closed. Your seat has been reassigned."

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Then came you, about 25 years old, with bright red hair and that particular Gen Z power in your presence, and still a vaguely gentle demeanor. You paused, with your boarding pass in your hand, inches away from the red-light scanner. You kept still. I wondered who you were. You were listening. You seemed to be in deep reflection. Perhaps I would more accurately call it contemplation.

Before you swiped, you stepped back as if pushing yourself from the door. "You can have your seat back," you said, handing the boarding pass back to the agent and then graciously walking away.

It was not an easy choice. You looked slightly frustrated and pained. From the standby list, you had just been given a first-class seat to New York, and now you wouldn't be going home tonight. I wanted to pay for your next flight, or something, but you had slipped away. 

Gen Z'ers, one of you saved the day for me this week. I continue to think about your most profound gesture and wish I knew your name. But I am 100% sure based on your behavior that you are a member of Gen Z. I know this with certainty because your generation is reworking our societal standards of civility, relationships, and ethical culture.

I know that we have handed you lots of problems. You are inheriting a lot to fix. But I find solace in the fact that many of these problems might not be here for you because you won't cause them in the first place. You have reversed the forms of thinking that caused unnecessary conflict and hate, power plays, and do not take what is not yours.

This all said, with your enlightened revision of culture, your inner suffering is unsurpassed in the last four generations in our country. Diseases of despair in Gen Z—episodes of anxiety, depression, addiction, and even suicidality are epidemic—and have been escalated to a national health crisis by the U.S. surgeon general. Just last week, the Washington Post published a survey finding that four in 10 teens are depressed, and one in five have contemplated suicide.

Many members of Gen Z are suffering deeply.

What now do you need to reverse what we gave you (or did not give you) to save your own inner life?

Research has a clear answer. Too many of you do not report feeling in partnership with a Higher Power. Twenty-five years of hard data show that having a spiritual core is the single most powerful factor in preventing depression, addiction, and even suicide. In your adulthood, having a felt transcendent relationship is linked to an 80% decreased relative risk of addiction to substances, a 60% decrease in suffering from major depression, and a 50 to 80% decrease in suicide—a leading killer of your generation.

We know from MRI studies that the transcendent relationship awakens a circuit in your brain. And so, too, recovering from depression and addiction is improved when it involves realizing or drawing closer to our spiritual core.

Ticket returner, you are exactly the type of person who is going to reverse the destruction and suffering plaguing our time. You showed me something life-changing. With no way of reaching you, here I try to pay it forward.

National polls show that Gen Z'ers are the least religious generation. But what I am describing here is not a faith-based connection—but a spiritual one. Peer-reviewed studies of twins confirm that religion (which is socialized through the environment) is not the same thing as our inborn, hard-wired capacity for personal spirituality (which is innate).

Whether your word is Higher Power, God, Jesus, Hashem, Allah, Spirit, or the Universe, you have an opportunity to find your way back to the power of a transcendent relationship, on your own terms. As you reverse the mess we made and save our outer world, please also save yourselves. More than 25 years of research on the science of spirituality proves that your inner spiritual path will point the way forward. Invite your wise heart to connect with your Higher Power.

We love you,

From your moms and dads

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