Success and Happiness across the Life Span: What Matters Most During Childhood?

Success and Happiness across the Life Span: What Matters Most During Childhood?

Psychology April 28, 2014 / By Dona Matthews
Success and Happiness across the Life Span: What Matters Most During Childhood?

Across cultures, parents’ long-term objectives for their children include happiness, integrity, and the fulfillment that comes from doing work they value and sustaining meaningful relationships. In this article, I write about six childhood factors that increase the likelihood of people making happily productive lives for themselves.

I’ve written a lot about intelligence—what it is, how it develops, and what parents and others can do to support its development. But intelligence—as important as it is to so many dimensions of a person’s life—doesn’t predict happiness, success, or fulfilment across the life span. What childhood factors increase the chances that a person will achieve a happily productive life?

1.       Loving attunement:
Infants who develop an early attachment to a caregiver—usually a mother—do a lot better over the life span than those who don’t. Characteristics of a secure and loving environment include emotional attunement; reassurance and comfort; holding and snuggling; and at least one adult who reliably listens and responds to a child’s changing moods and needs. The children who do best as adults have early home experiences of warmth, acceptance, sensitivity, stimulation, and engaged conversation.

One of the implications of this in today’s world is that electronic distractions be limited, both for children and also for adults when they’re spending time with kids. As Tracy Dennis has written about in her Psyche’s Circuitry blog, device-focused parents don’t look their kids in the eye as often, hear what they have to say, pick up on their feelings, or transmit that sparkle in the eye that makes children (and adults) feel valued.

2.       Play:    
Toddlers and children benefit enormously from opportunities for playful interaction with the world around them (as do adults, of course!). Benefits of ample time during childhood for unstructured playful exploration include better self-regulation, self-awareness, and collaboration skills; greater ownership of one’s own learning; and a freer imagination.

Intelligence and creativity develop when young children are exposed to a variety of multi-sensory stimuli that engage all the senses. This can include music, dance, games of every description, visually interesting surroundings, walks in nature and the neighbourhood, and shapes and textures to taste, touch, and manipulate.

Playtime should be outdoors as often as possible—ideally for an hour or more every day. Outdoor playtime opens up a world of possibilities that can expand the imagination; stimulate all the senses; free the spirit; and make a person calmer, more optimistic, healthier, more creative, and more successful at learning and accomplishing.

3.       Reflection:               
Ample time for doing nothing—aka ‘restful neural processing’—is essential to optimal learning and happiness over the long run. Contemplation and reflection improve the quality of the attention a person can pay to the world outside oneself, contributing to memory-building and meaning-making capacities. Children (and adults) who engage in mindful introspection perform and plan better than others. They’re also more motivated and less anxious.

One of the best ways parents can support their kids in acquiring the important habit of reflection is to model it themselves, allowing themselves to daydream now and then, or practicing mindful meditation.

4.       Passion:              
A passionate desire to explore, understand, and create is at the heart of all high-level achievement, and is the wellspring of happy productivity across the life span. A child’s passions are nurtured when she’s exposed to rich and varied experiences, encouraged to follow her curiosities, supported in the development of her knowledge and skills, and allowed ample time for play and reflection.

Parents also contribute to kids’ eventual well-being and success when they follow their own passions, when they model the joys and challenges of engagement, curiosity, and exploration.

5.       Gratitude:          
Children who learn to feel gratitude for what’s good in their own lives find pleasure in helping others, and make friends at the same time. Those who develop feelings of entitlement, on the other hand, are not as likely to be liked by others, for obvious reasons—and not as likely to achieve the close, caring relationships that contribute to happiness across the life span.

A habitual attitude of gratitude can be learned, and leads to increased well-being, happiness, energy, optimism, empathy, and popularity. When parents model appreciation and gratitude for the gifts of everyday life—the sunshine, enough food to eat, the small pleasures of being together with loved ones—they inspire gratitude in their children, and encourage them to live that out in their own lives, and with others.

6.       Grit and a growth mindset:    
As children get older, they benefit from falling down and learning to get back up on their own—with their parents’ loving support—thereby acquiring the resilience needed for adult success. Grit develops with a growth mindset, as people discover the benefits of working through challenges, persisting through tough times, and staying with one’s passions long enough to achieve meaningful outcomes.

Holding a growth mindset—understanding that intelligence and creativity are not innate but rather develop incrementally—leads to perseverance through troubles, and the realization that hard work over time is what leads to success and fulfilment.

The child who experiences loving attunement and ample opportunities for unstructured play has a head start toward happy productivity across the life span. Her chances of fulfilment and success are even higher if she also acquires somewhere along the way the habits of reflection, engagement, gratitude, and grit.

For articles and posts on these and related topics, watch for Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, to be published in July 2014 by House of Anansi Press;


For more on these topics:

Parenting and Multi-Tasking in the Digital Age, by Tracy Dennis

Stressed Out in America: 5 Reasons to Let Your Kids Play by Katie Hurley

Protect Your Child’s Playtime: It’s More Important than Homework, Lessons, and Organized Sports by Dona Matthews

Play Outside! Twelve Ways to Health, Happiness, Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability by Dona Matthews

Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming by Rebecca McMillan, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Jerome Singer

Success Comes from Grit and Plenty of Helping Hands Along the Way by Emily Hanford

Mindset Online

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