You might believe that happy kids stand a better chance of growing up into happy adults.
And for the most part you'd be right--a recent study looking into the effect a happy adolescence has on adult life found that most outcomes are better for happier teens. But a startling fact also emerged: happy teens are more likely to divorce.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge used data from 2,776 teens who participated in a 1946 British birth cohort study. Their teachers rated the children at ages 13 and 15 on whether they exhibited any of four different measures of happiness: "very popular with other children"; "unusually happy and contented"; "makes friends extremely easily"; and "extremely energetic, never tired."
Based on the answers, the group was divided into three: those with none of the positive markers, those with one, and those with two or more. Then at ages 36, 43, and 53, researchers went back to the same people to measure their incidence of mental disorder, life satisfaction (participants rated themselves), and social lives.
Teens in one of the positive categories grew up to have more social contact, and higher life satisfaction. Perhaps most pressingly, those with one positive rating were 21 percent less likely to have mental health problems in their adult life, and those with two positive ratings were 60 percent less likely.
But teens who received two positive ratings were also significantly more likely to divorce than those with one, or no positive ratings. While 20.4 percent of this happiest group had divorced at some point (of those who had been married), 16.5 and 16.3 percent of those with one or no positive ratings divorced, respectively.
To get a better understanding of these results, we talked to researcher Felicia Huppert, an author on the paper and director of the Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge:
You found that happy kids are more likely to divorce. Did that finding surprise you?
It certainly did.
Did any prior research point to that?
No, not that I'm aware of, nothing at all. Happy children are much more likely to get married.
Why do you believe positive kids were more likely to eventually divorce?
From this study we can't be sure. Minor possibilities would be things like, happy children are likely to be more confident and have more friends and family and are more likely to be supported. If they find themselves in a sad position where their marriage has broken down, they might be able to leave it.
How did you measure "happiness"?
It was based on teacher rating when the cohort members were aged 13 and 15. It rated many things--conduct, behavior--and a handful of questions. For example, was the child unusually happy, unusually energetic, did they have a large number of friends? We developed a scale to see if they had one of those, none of those, or two or more.
What were some typical outcomes for happy kids?
The most important outcome was that as far as we had measured them, up to their mid-fifties, they were 60 percent less likely to have any mental disorder at all. And given the devastating effect of mental disorder on people, their families, and society, it's a huge difference. It supports the idea that we need to put effort to the early years to make sure all children have the best start they can.
Did you look at any other factors in the kids' lives--whether their parents had divorced, for example--or just whether or not they themselves were happy?
In this particular study, we only looked at the childrens' happiness based on those teacher ratings. From a different study we did, we found that the kind of parenting they had really affected people's happiness up into their fifties.
We typically think that a happy childhood leads to a happy adulthood. Does this finding suggest that's not true? Or are we just redefining what happiness is? (ie. it's now the option to divorce)?
The kids who were happy when they were young may have come from happier homes and know what a good relationship is like and maybe they were more likely to recognize when they didn't have one. I'd also be interested in whether the kinds of divorces they had were different--whether they ended up in more amicable divorces.
This seems like a rather pessimistic finding overall. What can parents take away from this?
The one finding about divorce was pessimistic, but the other findings were overwhelmingly positive. Some people end up in very bad marriages, perhaps having the strength to leave such a marriage is not a bad thing.