KIDS
August 30, 2012

The Road to Well-Being, Paved with Relationships

Parents should pay more attention to kids' friendships than academics. Having friends matters more.

A 32-year-long study strongly suggests that forming good social relationships in childhood and adolescence is the best road to well-being as an adult. On the other hand, achievement in school isn't a very good predictor of future well-being.

Put another way, a report card saying your child needs to do better in math or history may not be so serious. But one that says your child needs to get along better with others is something you'd want to look into.

The main result was that social connectedness in early life often went hand-in-hand with well-being as an adult. Academic achievement didn't.

The study followed 804 people in Dunedin, New Zealand who were born in the early 1970s. They were first enrolled and assessed at the age of three, and then re-assessed at ages 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32 and 38 on a variety of health, behavior, and background measures.

Some of the early-life factors considered were the level of family disadvantage in childhood, social connectedness in childhood, language development in childhood, social connectedness in adolescence and academic achievement in adolescence.

The researchers also used a combination of four factors to estimate the subjects' sense of well-being or adjustment: a sense of coherence, positive coping styles, social participation, and self-estimates of social strengths such as kindness, trustworthiness and reliability. They avoided using the term, "happiness."

The purpose of the study was to statistically analyze how often early academic, social and other factors led to well-being as an adult. The main result was that social connectedness in early life often went hand-in-hand with well-being as an adult. Academic achievement didn't.

Growing up in disadvantaged social or economic circumstances had only a minor negative effect on adult well-being. Early poverty, for example, didn't mean a child was doomed to an unrewarding life as an adult. But a poor socioeconomic background did strongly lower social connectedness and academic performance during childhood and adolescence. This agrees with what most teenagers will tell you: the first 18 years really are the hardest.

The researchers describe their results as exploratory rather than definitive. One reason is the general lack of consensus on what constitutes well-being. Another is that most previous psychological studies of development have focused on psychopathology: sickness, not wellness. There are few studies on what factors lead to positive developments, such as adult well-being.

For parents who are unsure about how to judge their child's degree of social connectedness, it is is often measured in childhood by how well the child is liked, how much time they spend alone and the child's level of confidence. Social connectedness in adolescence is often measured by the number and quality of social attachments (friends, confidants and others) and the amount of participation in groups, clubs and other organizations.

An article on the study was published online by Journal of Happiness Studies.

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