“After declining for decades, the amount of time that parents spent on childcare started to rise in the 1990s and then skyrocketed in the 2000s, especially among college-educated moms. Why? [Researchers Gary and Valerie Ramey] found a surprising answer: college. Specifically: the increased competition for kids to get into good colleges. These high-end parents weren’t simply babysitting; they were chauffeuring their kids to the kind of extracurricular activities that look good on a college application.”—from Freakonomics Radio, “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting”

Are you one of those parents who has been thinking about your kids’ schooling since birth? Are the researchers mentioned above talking about YOU? (If you’re not sure, here’s a litmus test: Does your baby have a onesie from your alma mater that reads “Class of 20XX”?)

Or maybe your kids are in high school, and you are starting to worry about their college prospects, perhaps even wishing that you’d started thinking about it all a bit earlier.

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In my post before Labor Day I agonized over my kids’ after-school schedule, coming to the conclusion, thanks to the help of a handful of economists, that more “enrichment” activities do not further kids’ academic success.

Which begs the question: How can parents influence children’s academic achievement, besides by being intelligent and well-educated themselves? (The economists in this overview of the topic deem genetics the most robust predictor of academic success).

The economists, all concerned with raising their own children, clearly didn’t examine how happiness influences kids’ success (if they had, they would all be taking my online course and subscribed to this blog). They missed the good news: there are a plethora of studies which make it abundantly clear how to best help your children reach their potential in school, on the athletic field, and in virtually all of their extra-curricular pursuits.

Greater Good contributor Sonja Lubomirksy and her colleagues conducted an enormous meta-analysis of research (evaluating 200+ studies involving nearly 300,000 people) about success. This is what they found: “Happy individuals are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health.” 

We tend to think that when we are successful—or when our kids are successful—THEN we will be happy. But that isn’t what Lubomirsky and her colleagues found. They noticed that while success does, sometimes, make us happy, more often than that happiness precedes success. In other words, they found considerable evidence that happiness causes success—not just academically, but in virtually every area of our lives.

And happiness is, my dear readers, something we can influence in our children. Emotions are more like properties of groups than qualities of individuals (more on that next week): When we are happy, and the people around us are happy, our children are likely to be, too.

This means that happiness is not just something we parents should care about; it is something that schools need to foster, too. Happiness isn’t just a nice-to-have, It is a MUST-HAVE for academic success.

It is no longer okay to assume that hard work and diligent training alone are going to produce that star student who goes on to Harvard and lives happily-ever-after. It isn’t enough to know political science and organic chemistry and art history for a productive, joyful, meaningful life. We also need to teach our kids the skills they need for happiness. So that they might also be successful in life.

In other words, happiness will help your kids get into college. Maybe more than anything else, like playing a zillion varsity sports or that amazing SAT prep class.

This is because happiness and positive emotions—like gratitude and optimism and contentedness—fuel success, in addition to making life worth living.

I will leave you with this quote from Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, which is another one of those science-based business books I think applies to parenting as well:

“Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

This school year, let’s all commit to fostering happiness, not just academic success!


Achor, Shawn, 2010, The Happiness Advantage, New York: Crown Business.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Laura King, and Ed Diener, 2005, Psychological Bulletin, “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?”, Vol. 131, No. 6, pp. 803-855.

“The Economists Guide to Parenting”


© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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