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Children and happiness

Updated Thursday, 10 January 2019

What makes children happy? Toys? Friends? Dr. Michelle de Haan discusses the relationship between children and happiness

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Happiness pictured by 6 year-old Piers from Silverstone Infants School

What makes children happy? ‘That’s easy,' you might say, ‘a new toy, an ice cream or a trip to the amusement park.’ While these things bring an immediate smile to many children’s faces, they are probably not the things that will keep them happy day by day, or turn them into happy adults.

Even though we might all like to know the key to happiness, there is actually relatively little psychological research on this topic. In the past psychologists have tended to focus on how disorders involving negative mood can be prevented rather than how happiness can be achieved. However, more recently psychologists, notably Professor Martin Seligman, have developed what they call ‘positive psychology’: the study of happiness and well-being.

One somewhat surprising finding is that research disproves the common notion that being rich makes people happy. While it is true that living under very deprived circumstances is related to being unhappy, once people’s income exceeds the poverty level further increases in wealth do not lead to corresponding increases in happiness. One example to illustrate this point is that, if wealth did lead to happiness, we might expect people in today’s society to be much happier than in the past decades as we are earning much more. However, studies across the globe have shown that, in spite of great increases in income since the 1950s and 1960s, levels of happiness have remained pretty much the same.

Why have these improvements in life circumstances not resulted in lasting changes in happiness? There seem to be two reasons why wealth does not lead to any lasting change in happiness. One is people’s changing aspirations: once you have more, you also want more. The other reason is social comparison: once you see what other people have you are less satisfied with your own possessions. This last point is well put by Marx: ‘A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small, it satisfies social demands for a dwelling. But if a palace rises beside the little house, the little house shrinks into a hut.' These same reasons might partly be why the happiness of the child’s new toy is often short-lived!

Instead of wealth leading to happiness, research time and again has shown that good relationships are necessary for lasting happiness. This brings us directly to children, because children’s relationships with their parents (or other primary caregivers) are the starting point for happiness. Professor John Bowlby, a pioneer in the study of parent-child attachment, believed that this relationship has enormous influence in shaping a child’s self-esteem, her expectations of other people and view of the world in general.

Professor Mary Ainsworth was the first to develop a way of formally classifying the different types of relationships that exist between parents and children. Her test, called the ‘Strange Situation’, involves observing toddlers’ reactions during a series of separations and reunions with the parent. Securely attached toddlers protest when the parent leaves but are quickly comforted when they return, whereas insecurely attached infants continue to cry or avoid the parent when they return. Prof. Ainsworth’s own work, and that by others using the Strange Situation, shows that securely attached toddlers typically go on to have more positive, less troublesome relationships than insecurely attached toddlers, including relationships with friends, with romantic partners, and even their own future children. A happy note is that having a bad childhood does not necessarily doom children to repeat the same negative pattern with their own children. If a parent has reflected on their bad childhood, attempting to make sense of past events, they are less likely to repeat the same negative pattern.


Happiness pictured by 6 year-old Piers from Silverstone Infants School

While relationships are extremely important for children’s happiness, another important ingredient is called mastery. This means that children are happy when they have something they are ‘good at’, and when their family and other important people in their lives notice and appreciate these skills. However, children should not be so focused on goals that they feel their happiness depends directly on achieving them. For example, a child who enjoys playing football for the game is likely to be made happier by the experience than one who can only feel happy if the team achieves a win. The tendency to feel that happiness is dependent on achieving particular goals is called ‘conditional goal setting’—‘If I score a goal in the game, then I will be happy’. This is a style of thinking that is associated with depression in both children and adults.

Up until now we have been considering how life events and circumstances contribute to happiness. However it is important to keep in mind that a large part, perhaps even more than half, is dictated by genetic factors. For example, studies have found that siblings who were raised in different families show striking similarities in the level of happiness, whereas unrelated children living in the same families do not. These types of findings may partly be attributable to the link between personality, known to be quite heritable, and happiness: people with extroverted personalities tend to be happier than those with more introverted, ‘neurotic’ personalities.

Research does show that some basic aspects of the brain circuits involved in emotion are in place from very early in life. Professor Richard Davidson, an expert in the brain bases of emotion, has shown that people whose brains are more active in the left frontal area tend to be more positive, outgoing, and smile more; by contrast people who show the opposite pattern of more activity in the right tend to report more negative thoughts, be more shy, and smile less. While this basic pattern can change as peoples’ feelings change from moment to moment during the day, it is estimated that about 60% of the variation between adults reflects the stable characteristics of the person.

Professor Davidson and his colleague Professor Nathan Fox have shown that a similar relationship between brain activity and emotion is seen even in newborns. They gave newborns either a sweet taste or a sour taste to induce positive or negative emotions, and then measured brain activation using the electroencephalogram (EEG). Newborns showed greater left frontal brain activation while smiling for the sweet taste but greater right frontal activation when showing disgust for the sour taste. Studies of older infants show the same type of results: at 10 months of age infants displaying right frontal brain activation are more likely to cry when their mother leaves than those displaying left frontal activation.

Do these types of studies mean that a child’s level of happiness is ‘set’ from the very beginning of life? The answer to this question seems to be ‘no’ - as we saw earlier on, life events and circumstances contribute as well. Moreover, particularly during development, the aspects of happiness reflected in the EEG measures are changeable. For example, when Professor Fox and his colleagues followed up a group of children who had shown high levels of shyness and right frontal activation at 9 months of age, they found that some of the children continued to show the right frontal pattern at 14 months and continued to be quite shy even at 4 years. However, some showed a shift to a more left frontal pattern at 14 months of age and were less shy by 4 years. While this study does not tell us what factors led some children to remain very shy and others to become less shy, it does suggest that it is possible to change a child’s basic emotional outlook. Interestingly, children themselves are quite optimistic about changing the negative: while 5 to 6 year-olds feel it is quite hard to change negative physical traits, they feel it is quite easy to change negative psychological traits (e.g., being very shy/fearful). This optimism seems to diminish by 7 to 10 years of age however, as children, like adults, come to believe that negative psychological traits are relatively difficult to change.

What, then, makes children happy? In the long term, the basic ingredients that make children happy during childhood seem to be the same ones that help them to become happy adults: a secure relationship with parents gives the base to confidently explore the world and develop a sense of mastery and recognition, all important components in the recipe for happiness. However, in the short term, the new toy might provide a smile too!

Further Reading
Well-being and affective style: Neural substrates and biobehavioral correlates from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London
R J Davidson

Happy Child, happy adult: The childhood routes of adult happiness
E M Hallowell

The pursuit of happiness from Scientific American, 274
D G Myers & F Diener

The Optimistic Child
M E P Seligman, K Reivich, L Jaycox and J Gillham

From the web:
EEG asymmetry

Attachment theory

Positive Psychology Centre

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