Emotional Health in Childhood is the Key to Future Happiness Article
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Emotional Health in Childhood is the Key to Future Happiness

Can money buy happiness? British researchers think not, but they may have found the real key: in childhood.

A recent article in the Pulitzer-prize-winning British newspaper, The Guardian, "Emotional health in childhood ‘is the key to future happiness’”, published Nov. 8, 2014, draws attention to what is required for feeling satisfied with life. Researchers in the Wellbeing Research Programme concluded that “a child’s emotional health is far more important to their satisfaction levels as an adult than other factors, such as if they achieve academic success when young, or wealth when older.”

An emeritus professor at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance, Richard Layard, and his colleagues evaluated the quality of a child’s emotional health by analyzing internal factors such as whether they endured unhappiness, sleeplessness, eating disorders, bedwetting, fearfulness or tiredness. Their study challenges the assumption that academic achievement matters more than anything else in laying the groundwork for happiness as an adult.

Dr. Carol Allred, developer of the Positive Action program notes, “This statement is consistent with the philosophy of the Positive Action program that you feel good about yourself when you do positive actions for your whole self: the physical, intellectual, social and emotional areas. Having these holistic skills prepares you in every way; you can have a healthy emotional well-being as well as success in academics—you don’t have to choose. Success in academics or having wealth are not measures of happiness for everyone. Positive Action defines success and happiness as feeling good about who you are, what you are doing and how you treat others, and the program systematically teaches this for lasting life satisfaction for everyone. ”

Layard’s study, “What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-course Model of Well-being,” was published in the November 2014 edition of the Economic Journal, along with another article addressing the same question, “Does Childhood Predict Adult Life Satisfaction? Evidence from British Cohort Surveys.” Their data comes from 9,000 subjects studied from 1970 on, providing detailed information on family background and childhood that measured their emotional health at ages 5, 10, 16, 26 and 34.

Life satisfaction, income, education, employment, good conduct, marital status, self-assessed health and emotional health were measured. Adult life satisfaction was hard to predict using only information about family and childhood backgrounds, the researchers found, although childhood and family education and income were the most powerful influence on adult economic outcomes.

Childhood emotional health, on the other hand, is a key element of predicting adult well-being, they said. “The most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is the child’s emotional health, followed by the child’s conduct. The least powerful predictor is the child’s intellectual development.” Evaluations of Positive Action conducted by Dr. Brian Flay and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Oregon State University have shown that PA improves all of these predictors of adult life-satisfaction - emotional health (lower levels of anxiety and depression), conduct (lower levels of negative behaviors, including bullying, substance use and disruptive behaviors) and academic achievement.

As the economists point out, these findings may have implications for educational policy and raise questions about the extent to which intervening in a child’s life will pay dividends later on. “Child Interventions can produce massive savings to public finances, but these are often at a much later date,” the authors note. Flay and Allred add that the long-term benefits of all of these improvements pay major dividends in adolescence, including increased likelihood of being employed or entering higher education (as shown in Flay & Allred, 2003), and should continue to do so in adulthood. “The economic value of these dividends will far exceed the cost of providing Positive Action to students during their school years,” they point out.