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New research about the way we live

The childhood roots of adult happiness
The childhood roots of adult happiness

By Edward Hallowell, M.D

What do I really want for my children? If you spend some time thinking about this question, your reply will almost certainly include one particular word—the simple, almost silly-seeming word, happiness.

Most of us parents just want our kids to be happy, now and forever. Oh, sure, we want them to be good people. We want them to contribute to the world. We want them to care for others and lead responsible lives. But deep down, more than anything else, most of us want our children to be happy.

What does it mean?

One way to define happiness is as “a feeling that your life is going well.” That feeling does not have to begin in childhood, but it’s a good place to start if you want it to become a habit that endures. One researcher studying the roots of happiness has concluded that “happiness is not something that happens to people but something that they make happen.”

We can’t control everything in our children’s lives, but we can make sure they learn the basics of the skill of happiness. When I say “we,” I mean we as a society and we as individuals interested in the welfare of kids. And those “we’s” need to work together to plant the roots of adult happiness solidly in childhood.

Making the magic of childhood last

As parents, we don’t get unlimited time to set down these roots. We get only about 15 years of at-home, muddy-river, big-dream, go-out-and-play, kiss-me goodnight, time-is-forever, I’ll-never-die childhood. I remember once asking my youngest, who had just turned six, “Tucker, could you try to find a way to grow up more slowly?”

How can we protect a child long enough for a good spell to be cast? Is there something we can do as parents to allow the magic of childhood to turn our children into resilient and joyful adults? A whole new field of research into the ingredients of happiness has sprouted in recent decades. We now have a more solid idea of what can go right (not just wrong), what can be changed and what can’t, and what children need in order to stand the best chance of finding happiness later on.

Researchers have identified two of the childhood roots of adult happiness as: (a) the ability to create and sustain joy and (b) the capacity to deal with pain and adversity. Here’s what children need in order to thrive—both now and in the future.

Connection in the form of unconditional love from an adult, usually one or both parents, is the single most important root of adult happiness. When parents expect more than a child can deliver (when they imply, for example, “I love you but I would love you even more if you get an A”), they are raising children who feel that they can never please their parents, no matter what.

There are many other kinds of connection that, when combined, form an all but unshakable foundation on which you can build an entire life. They include family togetherness and positive connections to friends, neighborhood, school and community, to sports, to the arts and to a sense of the past.

Play. Many children these days spend too much time rushing from one lesson or “enriching” activity to the next without ever doing the single most enriching activity ever devised: play. Play builds the imagination. It teaches the skills of problem-solving and cooperation, the ability to tolerate frustration and the all-important ability to fail. And the child who learns to play alone will never be lonely.

In addition when you’re able to “play in your own mind,” you can daydream. This is a special talent that most children have, and it’s a crucial one. People use dreams to chart the courses they take in their lives. Dreams can also lead to or reinforce your beliefs. The stronger your ability to play in your mind—to dream—the greater the likelihood that your beliefs will not begin to crumble as you grow older. Play generates joy, which becomes its own reward.

Practice. Rare is the child who can ride a bike on the first try without falling off. But such is the allure of being able to ride—frustration becomes bearable. Although children might not enjoy practicing, they will keep at it because they like how the final result feels.

Plus, as children practice, they usually receive some help. And learning how to get help through teaching or coaching is yet another important skill.

Mastery. After a certain amount of practice and discipline, a child will achieve the feeling of mastery—“I can do it!”—and few feelings in life are better than that. It’s a great motivator. When children master something they couldn’t do before, their self-esteem rises, whether they receive praise or not. And, with mastery comes not just self-esteem but also confidence, leadership skills, initiative and an enduring desire to work hard.

Recognition. Mastery leads to an ever-widening circle of recognition and connectedness. It may seem trivial, but recognition can make the difference between joyless achievement and joyful mastery. The feeling of being valued by others enhances a child’s sense of belonging and of contributing.

Once you know that what you have done matters to people who matter to you, then what you have done becomes more uplifting to you. You will feel more connected to your group and you will want to do right by that group. And this feeling of genuine connectedness to a larger group becomes the root of moral behavior.

More research on the sources of happiness

What makes for joy in life and how can we set the stage for our children to find happiness throughout their lives? Researchers have explored different aspects of these questions—and here’s what their studies have revealed.

In his book “Adaptation to Life and the Wisdom of the Ego,” George Vaillant has found that how a person deals with stress is pivotal—and that it, too, can be learned. The goal for parents should not be to prevent stress in a child’s life but rather to help the child learn healthy ways of accommodating it.

Researcher and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has brought us the concept of “flow,” that state of mind when you become one with what you are doing—when the challenge an activity poses and your skill are both high. For example, an expert skier finds “flow” when he or she is skiing the toughest slope. We can all find “flow” when we’re doing what we love to do and doing it well.

In his book “Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child,” Martin Seligman has shown the extraordinary power of childhood optimism as a protector against future depression and anxiety. This strongly correlates with a happy adulthood. And while genetics may indeed influence the development of optimism, Dr. Seligman says it can be learned at any age.

David Myers, author of “The Pursuit of Happiness” has identified four factors that correlate most closely with happiness in adulthood. They are: (1) optimism, (2) extroversion, (3) a feeling that you have control over your life and (4) self-esteem. And all four of these factors take root in childhood.

—Adapted from the author’s book “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness” (Ballantine). Visit

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