• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 14th January, 2016

The pursuit of happiness

strong>Public policies that aim to improve children’s outcomes usually focus first on their intellectual development, second on their conduct, and finally – if at all – on children’s emotional health. But as far as adult life satisfaction is concerned, these priorities may be exactly backward.Most of the time, researchers and governments are interested in easily-measured outcomes such as income and school test scores. But the deeper reason for such interest is not so much that income and test scores are important in themselves, but that they are related to things that matter more, like happiness, general well-being, and life satisfaction.What if we actually focused on life satisfaction directly? Certainly, well-being is harder to measure than income. But in the last few years, the OECD and other national governments have looked for ways to pin a number on well-being. Survey researchers have started to ask, “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you about the way your life has turned out so far?” Recently, a team led by researchers at the London School of Economics wanted to know which childhood influences were most closely related to adult life-satisfaction. They found that the most powerful predictor was the child’s emotional health; second was the child’s conduct; and the least powerful predictor was the child’s intellectual development. As the researchers wrote: “This has obvious implications for educational policy.”The modelThe researchers developed a life-course model that aims to capture the way in which family background, childhood characteristics, and adult outcomes affect individual happiness.Using data on adults born in 1970, the model includes adult outcomes such as income, education, employment, criminal activity, having a spouse or partner, and physical, mental, and emotional health. It also includes childhood characteristics including academic performance, conduct, emotional health, and parents’ income, employment, education, and emotional health. A child’s intellectual performance was a strong predictor of her educational achievement and income in adulthood, as we might expect. But, where life satisfaction was concerned, emotional health emerged as the most important childhood predictor. Emotional health is defined by characteristics including tiredness, depression, worry, irrational fear, rage, irritation, and psychosomatic symptoms. In this study, it was measured by parents’ reports in childhood and by self-report in adulthood. Interestingly, about half the effect of childhood on adult life satisfaction was explained by the two links from childhood to adult outcomes, and from adult outcomes to adult life satisfaction. In other words, emotional health in childhood led to better emotional health and other outcomes in adulthood, and these good adult outcomes led people to feel more satisfied with their adult lives. But about half the effect of childhood on adult life satisfaction remained even when adult outcomes were taken into account. It seems plausible that a happy and healthy childhood makes a happier adulthood more likely, regardless of what else happens to the adult. Taking the model to policymakersThe model will need more work before it can be used by policymakers to simulate the longer-term effects of particular interventions. Crucially, researchers will want to look for other factors, such as genes, parenting style, and other aspects of children’s environments that might affect both childhood emotional health and long-term life satisfaction.However, as the model is improved, it might offer answers to urgent questions. At what point in life is intervention likely to be most effective at promoting well-being? What will the effect of a given intervention be? And will the benefits of the intervention outweigh its cost?A frequent criticism of the well-being approach to policy is that it would not alter policy priorities. This report suggests the opposite. If policymakers prioritized well-being, then the strategies they employ might be very different. A prime example is education policy, which, under a well-being approach, might focus more on promoting students’ emotional health than on the attainment of qualifications.If children’s emotional health does have a direct and substantial effect on adult life satisfaction, then the usefulness of this model for policymaking depends in large part on whether we know how to improve children’s emotional health. This sets out a major challenge for researchers: to understand how to reduce children’s anxiety, fear, and anger in order to benefit society in the long term. ************ReferenceLayard, R., Clark, A. E., Cornaglia, F., Powdthavee, N., Vernoit, J. (2013). What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-Course Model of Well-Being, IZA Discussion Paper, No. 7682

Back to Archives