Happy kids stand a better chance of growing up into happy adults, but surprisingly they are more likely to divorce.
Psychologists from the University of Cambridge and the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing have identified a link between positive teen years and a sense of well-being in midlife, and a recent study looking into the effect a happy adolescence has on adult life found that most outcomes are better for happier teens. However, a startling fact also emerged: happy teens are more likely to divorce.
The researchers used data from 2,776 teens that participated in a 1946 British birth cohort study. 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.” Students were also rated for negative conduct (restlessness, daydreaming, disobedience, lying, etc) and emotional problems (anxiety, fearfulness, diffidence, avoidance of attention, etc). Researchers also adjusted for social class of origin, childhood intelligence and education. 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.
On the other hand, there was no link between being a happy child and having an increased likelihood of getting married. In fact, “happy” children were more likely to get divorced. Researchers hypothesize that perhaps happier people have stronger self-esteem or self-efficacy and are therefore more willing and able to leave a bad marriage.
“The benefits to individuals, families and to society of good mental health, positive relationships and satisfying work are likely to be substantial,” said Dr. Felicia Huppert, one of the authors of the paper and director of the Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge.
Researchers expressed surprise that happy children divorced because prior research did not point to that. Happy children are much more likely to get married, Dr. Huppert said.
Dr. Huppert speculates that positive kids are more likely to eventually divorce because 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.
Happiness is based on teacher rating when the cohort members were aged 13 and 15. It rated many things–conduct, behavior–and a handful of questions.
Typical outcomes for happy kids are up to their mid-fifties, and 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.
Researchers only looked at the childrens’ happiness based on those teacher ratings, not any other factors in the kids’ lives–whether their parents had divorced, for example–or just whether or not they themselves were happy.
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.
Dr. Huppert expressed interest in knowing whether the kinds of divorces they had were different–whether they ended up in more amicable divorces.