FRIDAY, Aug. 10, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Happiness in adulthood may be determined by the quality of relationships in your youth, not brain power or academic prowess, new Australian research suggests.
"This shows that there is an enduring, significant relationship between being well-adjusted as a child and being well-adjusted as an adult," said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child/adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "[And] academic adjustment per se is not sufficient to lead to well-being."
Learning the secrets of "the good life" has guided human endeavors for millennia. But according to study author Craig Olsson, an associate professor in developmental psychology at Deakin University and the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Melbourne, neither material wealth nor academic achievement has been strongly linked to happiness.
Instead of focusing on either of these factors, Olsson and his colleagues decided to look at "sense of coherence, connection, positive coping and prosocial values."
"Coherence" included whether the child felt his or her life was meaningful and manageable; social involvement looked at participation in organized activities such as sports groups; coping strategies included using emotional support; and prosocial behavior included whether the person felt he or she was trustworthy, kind and reliable.
A person scoring high in all these areas would be "someone less obsessed by how they feel and what they can obtain, and more interested in how they live and the values they use to guide their interactions with themselves, others and the world," Olsson explained.
Those traits were associated with greater happiness in adulthood, according to the study, which followed more than 800 New Zealanders for 32 years, starting at 3 years of age. The results were published online July 25 in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
Early language development and adolescent academic achievement only had a weak association with well-being, the researchers found.
Using parent and teacher ratings, the researchers defined social connectedness in childhood as being liked, not isolated and confident.
For teenagers, social connectedness was measured by attachments to parents, peers, school and a close friend, in addition to participation in youth groups and recreational clubs.
To boost social connectedness, the authors envision developing "a broad-based social curriculum that could parallel the academic curriculum and nurture the development of positive values systems across the early developmental years," said Olsson, who has been involved with the study since 2008.
"The social environment provides critical learning opportunities for children and young people to explore, test and consolidate values such as kindness, trust, loyalty, care, etcetera, which are the 'glue' of enduring positive relationships across the life course," he added.
The findings aren't a surprise, some experts say.
"It is one of the basic precepts of our understanding of one's psychological makeup: That what we do as adults and how we approach life has been established in our childhood. If we had a healthy happy childhood, we are more likely to recreate those patterns as adults," said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.
"However, a happy childhood does not guarantee success if success is defined as career achievement," Hilfer said. "For that, a person must have the appropriate skills set or talent to succeed in their chosen profession. A person can be successful and not be happy, and a person can be happy and not considered a financial or career success story."
The American Psychological Association has more on emotional health and happiness.