At a time when anxiety is becoming increasingly prevalent among the rising generation, a common question that parents, teachers, professors, government officials and Church leaders are asking is “How do we help the youth and young adults of today?”
While it’s a broad question with several possible answers, researchers at Brigham Young University recently found one that may be surprising to some — family history.
Their study published in The Journal of Genealogy and Family History in April found that those who participate more in family history work have higher self-esteem, reduced anxiety and greater resilience.
“When we find that a family history course — you think about that, one course for three months — improves self-esteem by 8% and reduces anxiety by 20%, that’s huge,” said David A. Wood, BYU accounting professor and co-author of the study.
“Now, obviously, we’re not suggesting that this can solve clinical depression and all ills of life, but it can help. And to that end, the proof is in the pudding. Try it. Try it and see if you’re not happier at the end and if you don’t feel better.”
Wood co-authored the study “Improving Psychological Well-Being of Young Adults by Conducting Family History Research at a Religious University” with Barry M. Lunt, BYU information technology and cybersecurity professor, and Kelly R. Summers, professional genealogist and BYU part-time family history professor.
Reduced anxiety, increased self-esteem
Thinking about the wide spread challenges of mental health, self-esteem and resilience, Wood said initially it wasn’t obvious to turn to family history. But then he remembered prior research that found a connection between knowing one’s family and better psychological outcomes. He and the other two researchers wondered if doing family history actually improves psychological well-being.
“The three of us just got together and said: ‘We think this is true. We hear about this all the time in general conference. Let’s see if the empirical evidence can support these findings,’” said Wood, who has witnessed firsthand the psychological benefits of family history while serving in a YSA bishopric and other Church callings.
The study involved two groups of students at BYU — 145 students enrolled in an introductory family history course and 111 student volunteers from many different non-family history courses. Each participant had a FamilySearch.org account that tracks family history contributions. The students filled out an online survey at the beginning of the semester and at the end.
“What we find is, sure enough, the people in the family history class increased in their self-esteem, reduced anxiety and increased in resilience,” Wood said. More specifically, participating in family history research increased self-esteem by 8% and reduced anxiety by 20%.
Why? Because these students identified more with their family, Wood said. “We then were able to confirm these results with the other data and really dig into why, and it’s the attaching sources. So family stories are nice, and the other things we can do adding ancestors to our family tree are nice, but really digging into the source material creates that family identification and these psychological benefits.”
As a professional genealogist and family history professor, Summers said she was not surprised by the results that showed improvements in self-esteem. “I have always believed that as we learn more about our own ancestors and feel connected to them, we will in turn feel better about ourselves. As we take pride in being connected to our ancestors, it reflects in how we feel about ourselves, because they are a part of us.”
She was surprised, however, that participating in family history research actually reduced students’ overall anxiety. “Think about a typical university student and the many classes they attend and the multiple assignments that are required. It is interesting that a family history course and its assignments that focus on ancestral research could contribute in such a positive way. …
“Maybe every university student should enroll in a family history course,” she added with a smile.
Family history and the rising generation
This study is similar to another BYU study published in the journal Genealogy in March which found that family history knowledge is linked to healthy adolescent identity development.
Though family history has traditionally been seen as an activity for older individuals, more and more research shows the benefits it has on the young.
“If you can build that identity at a younger age, it’s going to have benefits for your whole life … ,” Wood said. “I think these findings should encourage Young Men and Young Women leaders and young single adult leaders to focus on family history as the Prophet encourages us to do, so that we can see these benefits through the rest of our lives.”
At the RootsTech “After-Party” in March, Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, participated in a panel with young adults. They encouraged the young adults to engage in temple and family history work and to receive the Lord’s promised blessings as they do so.
Lunt commented on how the results of the study support what prophets and apostles have repeatedly promised to those who do family history: “To me it’s evidence of specific blessings that come into our lives when we do family history work. They’ve said many times we’ll be blessed by doing it.”
Wood added: “I’ve seen it in my life, I’ve seen it in my kids’ lives, I’ve seen it in our ward members’ lives, that those who embrace family history, things go better for them in every aspect of their life. So my hope is, maybe this will cause people to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to try it. I’m going to go in and I’m going to experience this and try it for a month or two’ and see that your life is better because of it.”
Resources to get youth and young adults involved in family history
- FamilySearch Get Involved app
- BYU Record Linking Lab
- “Opening the Heavens” RootsTech panel of young adults
- “Our Quest for Connection” RootsTech series for youth and young adults
- “Mission: Possible — Engaging Youth in Family History” RootsTech class
- “Involve Children and Youth in Family History” on the FamilySearch Wiki