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Childhood friendships boost happiness

14th August 2012

Researchers in Australia say that the friendships we sustain in childhood could be the key to our happiness in later life.

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The quality of friendships was a more significant factor in determining who reported being happy in adulthood than youth, cleverness or academic distinction.

A research team led by Craig Olsson, an associate professor in developmental psychology at Deakin University and the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Melbourne, found that the secret of "the good life" does not lie in material wealth or academic achievement.

The researchers focused on measuring a "sense of coherence, connection, positive coping and prosocial values" in study subject, instead of focusing on economic or academic status.

A sense of coherence was defined as whether or not a child felt that his or her life was manageable and meaningful, while connection was taken to mean the level of involvement in social groups or sporting activities.

Positive coping strategies included the ability to draw on emotional support from others, while prosocial behaviour measured whether or not a child felt him or herself to be reliable, trustworthy and reliable.

The study assumed that high scores by those measures would mean that the respondent was less obsessed by how they feel or what they can get, and more concerned with how they lived and the sort of values that they used to guide their interactions with others.

Olsson and his team followed more than 800 New Zealand residents enrolled in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (DMHDS).

The participants were followed up for 32 years, beginning at the age of three, to assess the relative importance of early academic and social pathways to adult well-being.

Social connectedness in childhood and adolescence tended to be strongly associated with adult well-being.

They also measured the link between early language development and later academic success, but found it to be weak.

Previous studies have also found that there is no link between socioeconomic prosperity and happiness.

Writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies, the team concluded that adults who scored highly on the traits they outlined reported greater levels of happiness when they reached adulthood.

The researchers called for investments beyond the development of academic curricula to further encourage positive social development across childhood and adolescence, including a broad-based social curriculum that would parallel the academic curriculum and nurture the development of positive value systems in very young children.

Social connectedness in teenagers was measured by attachments to parents, peers, school and a close friend. Participation in youth groups and recreational clubs also played a part.

According to Olsson, the social environment provides critical learning opportunities for children and young people to explore, test and consolidate values such as kindness, trust, loyalty and care.

Such values former the "glue" of rewarding relationships later in life, he said.

According to Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, said the results made sense because the patterns established in childhood tended to stay with people as adults.


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