Research on the Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: An Annotated Bibliography

By Christine Carter | September 1, 2004 | 0 comments

Just how much can parents influence the happiness of their children? Read this discussion of what research has to say.

The key to happiness. Does it exist? What if you could give such a gift to your children? Believe it or not, scientific research suggests you can. Lost amid headlines about preschoolers on anti-depressant drugs and teenage suicides is the good news that parents can and do make a difference with regards to their children's happiness--now and later in life. This article reviews current research on the foundations of emotional well-being to reveal how parents can establish the roots of adult happiness in their children.

Happiness certainly comes to some people more easily than it does others, but nature does not trump nurture when it comes to well-being. Only about half of a child's overall level of happiness is determined by her genetic make-up.[1] A large team of child development experts recently summarized current thinking regarding the nature vs. nurture debate:

Virtually all contemporary researchers agree that the development of children is a highly complex process that is influenced by the interplay of nature and nurture. The influence of nurture consists of the multiple nested context in which children are reared, which include their home, extended family, child care settings, community, and society, each of which is embedded in the values, beliefs, and practices of a given culture...In simple terms, children affect their environments at the same time that their environments are affecting them...At every level of analysis, from neurons to neighborhoods, genetic and environmental effects operate in both directions.[2]

Nature and nurture are both important determinants of happiness; furthermore, they are inextricably intertwined. As the primary nurturers of their children--and because they have at least some measure of control over the environments and contexts in which their children are raised--parents have a tremendous impact on whether or not their children grow up into happy adults.

The primary components of a happy life

What is happiness? What causes it? Happiness comes to different people in different ways; individual definitions of happiness and its causes are as unique as those doing the defining. But most people would agree that a happy person is someone who experiences an abundance of positive thoughts and emotion. People who consider themselves to be happy experience about twice as many positive thoughts and feelings as they do negative. Depressed people, on the other hand, experience an equal ratio of positive and negative thoughts and feelings.[3]

While at first this may seem tautological (what makes a happy life is happiness) there is a range of positive emotion beyond just happiness. Gratitude and love, for example, are not the same than happiness, and yet they contribute as much or more to a happy life as happiness does. So a happy life is, for these purposes, an abundance of positive emotions and those things that make positive emotions easier to come by. Pleasurable experiences, such as a funny movie or a day at the beach, can trigger positive thoughts and feelings. Fulfilling activities, like the exercise of unique strengths and talents, can lead one to achieve "flow," that state of peak performance studied by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high"). Happy people also have meaningful relationships with others and the strong social skills and high emotional intelligence needed to form them.[4]

The primary components of a happy life--positive feelings, flow and fulfillment, emotional intelligence and strong social bonds--are deeply intertwined. Experiencing and expressing positive emotion is at the heart of almost all love and friendship.[5] Emotions, if they are positive, can contribute to the growth of new skills and competencies (and therefore flow and fulfillment); if they are negative, they often undermine such growth.[6] Emotional intelligence enables children to read other people's body language, facial expressions, and social cues--which in turn helps them form strong social bonds.[7] Positive thoughts and emotions protect people from negative emotions like fear, melancholy, and anxiety, allowing them to fully invest their mental energy in activity which will promote flow, mastery or gratification.[8] This article briefly separates the childhood roots of adult happiness from each other so parents can better understand how to help their children live meaningful, joyful lives.

Positive thoughts and emotions

The most obvious source of happiness, positive thoughts and emotions boost our intellectual, physical, and social resources. The work of Barbara Fredrickson demonstrates that positive moods actually cause people to like us better, making friendship, love and alliances more likely.[9] A positive mood "buoys people into a way of thinking that is creative, tolerant, constructive, generous, undefensive and lateral," says Marty Seligman, a happiness researcher and author of Authentic Happiness.[10] Further, the work of Alice Isen shows that positive thoughts and emotions actually heighten our intellectual ability, making it more likely that a physician, for example, will make a difficult diagnosis correctly.[11]

So how do we help children have more positive thoughts and emotions? Seligman shows that positive thoughts and emotions can be broken down into those about the past, such as gratitude and forgiveness; those about the present, such as the enjoyment of life's pleasures; and those about the future, such as excitement, faith, trust, optimism, and hope. Parents can increase the positive thoughts and emotions children feel about the past by making positive reflection habitual. Rituals that encourage children to express gratitude and thankfulness will do just this. Equally important is teaching your children to forgive, which ultimately turns anger and other negative feelings about the past into neutral or even somewhat positive memories, which researchers have shown makes life more satisfying.[12]

The lightening-fast pace of our lives threatens the positive thoughts and emotions we might otherwise feel about the present.[13] Children can be taught to slow things down in order to really "savor" life's pleasures. According to Seligman, savoring is the Buddhist-like "awareness of pleasure and of the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure."[14] Making such slow-down-and-enjoy-life time habitual in childhood will make for a happier child and form habits for a happier adulthood.

Parents can also help children create more positive thoughts and emotions towards the future by teaching them to be optimists. Learning to be an optimist means learning to recognize and then dispute negative or pessimistic thoughts. It also means helping children change the way they view negative life events: pessimists see the bad things in life as permanent and pervasive, while optimists see negative events as transient, specific to that one situation, and not personal.[15] Importantly, research shows that while some people are, of course, more inherently optimistic, others can learn optimism.[16] Helping children process inevitable negative life experiences optimistically will allow more space for them to have positive thoughts and emotions about the future.

Other positive thoughts and emotions about the future should also be encouraged. Excitement and hope can be supported through routines which encourage children to express their hopes for the future and their excitement about coming events. Opportunities to develop faith can be provided for children, for example, through regular attendance at religious activities.[17] And trust is a positive emotion parents can develop in their children by ensuring that they and other caregivers are always deserving of their children's confidence.

Flow, fulfillment and gratification

As anyone who has felt sad when a positive experience came to an end knows, positive thoughts and emotions--especially those that come from enjoying life's pleasures--are often fleeting. More lasting happiness can be found through engagement in gratifying or fulfilling activities, even though such activities are often not accompanied by any emotion at all. Csikszentmihalyi, the world's foremost expert on "flow," describes such engagement:

[A] person in flow is completely focused...Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person's entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification...Only after the task is completed do we have the leisure to look back on what has happened, and then we are flooded with gratitude for the excellence of that experience--then, in retrospect, we are happy.[18]

Flow comes to us when we face a clear set of goals that require well-defined responses. The challenge at hand needs to be neither too difficult given our skill-level, nor too easy. "If challenges are too high," writes Csikszentmihalyi, "one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious." When challenges are set too low, we eventually get bored and lose our focus.[19] Unlike pleasurable activities, which are relatively easy to engage in (like going out for dinner), gratifying activities are the application of one's unique strengths and so are more difficult to come by (like cooking a gourmet meal at home).

Researchers have shown that "early environments that facilitate competence and a sense of personal efficacy" foster children who flourish.[20] Children find flow and fulfillment in environments that encourage them to exercise their personal strengths; Seligman recommends that parents facilitate this in part by acknowledging, naming, and rewarding the strengths children display.[21] Chores and other must-do activities can be tailored to reflect children's unique abilities--a child who is inherently nurturing, for example, can be in charge of getting his little sister dressed. This would both help him develop a strength (the ability to love and be loved), and make the chore gratifying. He may even achieve flow while doing his chores! By encouraging children to spend more time engaging their strengths in gratifying activities, parents help steer them towards a meaningful and joyful life.

Family time and interactions are also important in helping children achieve flow. Csikszentmihayi found that teenagers who find flow on average spend four hours a week more than other teens interacting with their family. "This begins to explain why they learn to enjoy more whatever they are doing," writes Csikszentmihayi. "The family seems to act as a protective environment where a child can experiment in relative security, without having to be self-conscious and worry about being defensive or competitive."[22]

Another important skill parents teach children is how to deal with free-time and solitude in a way that promotes fulfillment and flow rather than loneliness and depression. Many studies have shown that people are more likely to feel depressed when they are alone; this is thought to be because without other people around to interact with, those who lack internal motivation lose the external motivation and goals other people provide them. As their mind loses its sense of purpose and begins to focus on thoughts that make them anxious, people often seek out stimulation that will screen out anxiety-producing thoughts--such as having a drink or turning on the television.[23]

According to Csikszentmihalyi's research, we rarely find flow in passive leisure activities such as watching television. Children learn to achieve flow when they are encouraged to participate in the kinds of activities likely to produce it, namely those that both challenge them and provide clear goals and immediate feedback. Free-time should be meaningful--either work or play, but not neither. The idea is to ensure that children understand which components of their lives they really enjoy, and which cause them stress and sadness; guided daily reflection can help generate such understanding. When children habitually engage in activities that develop their strengths and help them find flow, they will both be happier children and be poised to know what careers and activities will provide them fulfillment as adults.

Relating to others and the importance of emotional intelligence

Perhaps nothing is more important for a happy life than the ability to regulate and express one's emotions. John Gottman's research on emotional intelligence shows that children who can regulate their emotions are better at soothing themselves when they are upset, which means that they experience negative emotions for a shorter period of time. They have fewer infectious illnesses and are better at focusing their attention (a skill needed to find flow). Such children understand and relate to people better, and form stronger friendships.[24] This is very important, because other research shows that "relationships are among the most significant influences on healthy growth and psychological well-being" for children.[25] Similarly, in their study of very happy adults, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman found that the happiest people had stronger social relationships than less happy people.[26]

How well children establish relationships with other children matters to their well-being both in childhood and later in life.[27] Children consistently rejected by their peers have more problems; for example, they are more likely to get in trouble with the law, to do poorly in school, or to have psychiatric problems as adults.[28] David Myers, in his exhaustive work on the links between marriage and happiness, concludes that "there are few stronger predictors of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one's best friend."[29] So how do parents help their children develop the emotional intelligence and social skills they need to establish such strong social bonds?

Emotional intelligence and social competence are rooted in the parent-child bond. Studies show that when parents and caregivers pay close attention and respond to the emotional cues expressed by their children, children learn to regulate their emotions better.[30] Such parental responsiveness is at the heart of secure attachment relationships between parents and young children, and researchers have paid a great deal of attention to how secure attachments contribute to social competence.[31] Findings show that infants and toddlers who are securely attached to their mothers or their daytime caregivers are more mature and positive in their interactions with others. Children who have secure attachments with both their mothers and their caregivers are the most socially skilled of all.[32] "Securely attached young children compared with their insecurely attached peers have an easier time developing positive, supportive relationships with teachers, friends, and others whom they encounter as they grow up."[33]

Research also shows that securely attached children "have a more balanced self-concept, more advanced memory processes, a more sophisticated grasp of emotion, a more positive understanding of friendship, and they show greater conscience development than insecurely attached children."[34] It goes without saying that parents should do everything within their power to establish and maintain secure attachments with children. To do so, parents need to be consistent, dependable, and sensitive to children's intentions and needs.[35]

Gottman's research shows, however, that while love, dependability, and sensitivity may create a secure attachment, they are not enough to foster emotional intelligence in children.[36] Parents also need to "emotion coach" children by offering them empathy and helping them cope with negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Emotion coaching helps build and maintain secure attachments and develop loyalty and affection between parents and children.[37] Gottman's research reveals that parents who are effective emotion coaches are more than just aware of their children's emotions. Such parents see emotional expressions in their children--even anger and frustration--as opportunities to connect with and teach their children. They listen to their children empathetically, helping to explore and validate a child's feelings. Importantly, they don't stop there: they help the child verbally label the emotions he is feeling, and then they set limits with the child ("it is not okay to hit your sister") while helping her problem solve.[38]

Parents can also nurture budding social skills in other ways. Parents help children form friendships by structuring their play environments. The research of Carollee Howes shows that toddlers play best and display more maturity with children they know well and play with often.[39] These positive play experiences provide children with their earliest lessons about forming and keeping friendships. And friendships--as opposed to just familiarity--help children learn to deal with conflict in positive ways, for example by negotiating and compromising.[40]

Teaching happiness

You can teach your child to be happy, or at least happier. By providing an environment and daily routines which support and elicit positive feelings, the practice of fulfilling activities, emotional intelligence, and social skills, parents lay the ground for happy childhoods. And teaching children to be happy now helps them learn the skills and habits they need to find fulfillment and joy throughout their lifetimes.


Belsky, J. (1999). Interactional and Contextual Determinants of Attachment Security. Handbook of Attachment : Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. J. Cassidy and P. R. Shaver. New York, Guilford Press: 249-264.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow : The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York, BasicBooks.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (1988). Optimal Experience : Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Cambridge ; New York, Cambridge University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., K. R. Rathunde, et al. (1993). Talented Teenagers : The Roots of Success and Failure. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y., Cambridge University Press.

Diener, E. and M. Seligman (in press). "Beyond Money: Toward and Economy of Well-Being." Psychologoical Science in the Public Interest.

Diener, E. and M. E. P. Seligman (2002). "Very Happy People." Psychological Science 13(1): 81-84.

Estrada, C. A., A. M. Isen, et al. (1997). "Positive Affect Facilitates Integration of Information and Decreases Anchoring in Reasoning among Physicians." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 72(1): 117-135.

Fredrickson, B. (1998). "What Good Are Positive Emotions?" Review of General Psychology 2: 300-319.

--- (2001). "The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotion." American Psychologist 56: 218-226.

Fredrickson, B. L. and R. W. Levenson (1998). "Positive Emotions Speed Recovery from the Cardiovascular Sequelae of Negative Emotions." Cognition and Emotion 12: 191-220.

Gleick, J. (1999). Faster : The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York, Pantheon Books.

Gottlieb, G. (2002). Individual Development and Evolution : The Genesis of Novel Behavior. Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gottman, J. M. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Gottman, J. M., L. F. Katz, et al. (1997). Meta-Emotion : How Families Communicate Emotionally. Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hartup, W. W. and B. Laursen (1993). Conflict and Context in Peer Relations. Children on Playgrounds : Research Perspectives and Applications. C. H. Hart. Albany, State University of New York Press: 44-84.

Howes, C. (1988). "Peer Interaction in Young Children." Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (Serial No. 217) 53(1).

Howes, C., C. Rodning, et al. (1988). "Attachement and Child Care: Relationships with Mother and Caregiver." Early Childhood Research Quarterly 3: 403-416.

Larson, R. W. (1997). "The Emergence of Solitude as a Constructive Domain of Experience in Early Adolescence." Child Development 68(1): 80-93.

Myers, D. G. (2000). The American Paradox : Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. New Haven Conn., Yale University Press.

--- (2000). "The Funds, Friends, and Faith of Happy People." American Psychologist 55(56-67).

Rubin, K. H., W. Bukowski, et al. (1998). Peer Interactions, Relationships, and Groups. Handbook of Child Psychology. W. Damon. New York, John Wiley & Sons. Volume 3: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, Fifth Edition: 619-700.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York, A.A. Knopf.

--- (1995). The Optimistic Child. New York, Harper Perennial.

--- (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York, Free Press.

Shonkoff, J. P., D. Phillips, et al. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods : The Science of Early Child Development. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

Worthington, E. L. J. and M. Scherer (2004). "Forgiveness Is an Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy That Can Reduce Health Risks and Promote Health Resilience: Theory, Review, and Hypotheses." Psychology & Health 19(3): 385-405.


[1] Seligman (2002), p. 47.

[2] Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. (2000), pp. 23-25. See also Gottlieb (2002).

[3] Seligman.

[4] Happier people are not, however, necessarily wealthier. Once a person’s most basic needs are met, more money does little to nothing to increase happiness. For a review, see Diener and Seligman (in press).

[5] Seligman, p. 42.

[6] Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 104.

[7] Gottman (1997), p. 143.

[8] Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi (1988); Fredrickson and Levenson (1998).

[9] Fredrickson (1998); Fredrickson (2001)

[10] Seligman, p. 39.

[11] Estrada, Isen and Young (1997) .

[12] Seligman, p. 77; Worthington and Scherer (2004).

[13] Gleick (1999).

[14] Seligman, p. 107.

[15] Seligman (1995).

[16] Seligman (1991), see especially Chapter 12.

[17] Decades of research show a correlation between well-being and religion—for example, religious individuals are more likely to be healthy than non-religious individuals; additionally, they are more likely to live longer, to fight depression better given difficult circumstances, and to be somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than nonreligious people. For a review, see Myers (2000) . While some of the relationship between religion and well-being is undoubtedly due to the increased social support that often comes with a religious community, research has also shown that the link between religion and well-being is caused by the degree that “religions instill hope for the future and create meaning in life.” See Seligman, p. 60.

[18] Csikszentmihalyi (1997), pp. 31-32.

[19] Ibid., p. 30.

[20] Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 32.

[21] Importantly, Seligman distinguishes between strengths, which are moral and contribute to virtues (such as the ability to love and be loved), and talents, which are non-moral (such as being good at soccer). For more information about helping children develop strengths, and how this contributes to personal happiness see Part II in Seligman .

[22] Csikszentmihalyi, p. 122. See also Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde and Whalen (1993) .

[23] Csikszentmihalyi, p. 65. See also Larson (1997).

[24] Gottman, p. 16. See also pages 25, 39.

[25] Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 264.

[26] Diener and Seligman (2002) .

[27] Rubin, Bukowski and Parker (1998).

[28] For an excellent review, see pages 163-165 in Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. As with many of the factors that contribute to a happy life, it is important to note that while correlations have been found between well-being and the discussed variables, causality is not fully understood. In this case, for example, is it peer rejection that causes later problems in life, or is it the behaviors that get the child rejected in the first place that causes them? Similarly, do happy people have more friends simply because they are happy, and therefore are more pleasant to be around, or are they happy because they have more friends? In most cases, the causal arrows probably go both ways, e.g., happiness causes people to be more likable and having more friends makes people happier.

[29] Myers (2000), cited in Seligman, page 187.

[30] For a review, see pages 30-35 in Gottman.

[31] For a review, see pages 236-238 in Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development.

[32] Howes, Rodning, Galluzzo and Myers (1988).

[33] Shonkoff, Phillips and National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development., p. 236.

[34] For a review of this literature, see Ibid., pp. 236-237.

[35] Belsky (1999).

[36] Gottman, p. 16; Gottman, Katz and Hooven (1997).

[37] Gottman, p. 17.

[38] See Gottman, particularly Chapter 3, to learn more about how to emotion coach your child.

[39] Howes (1988).

[40] Hartup and Laursen (1993).


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About The Author

Christine Carter, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (Ballantine Books, 2015) and Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents (Random House, 2010). A former director of the GGSC, she served for many years as author of its parenting blog, Raising Happiness.


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