Feeling good was good enough for Janis Joplin and her Bobby McGee, but most parents want a little more for their kids, perhaps including a sense of coherence, positive coping, social engagement, and pro-social values. In short: well-being. A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies shows how children and adolescents get this well-being as adults.
In short, social connectedness massively overwhelms academic achievement.
The study mined 32 years of data from the New Zealand Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which followed about 1,000 people from birth to adulthood. About every three years, the study measured nearly every psychosocial goodie you can imagine, including measures of attachment to parents and peers, self-perceived strengths, socioeconomics, club and group participation, language development and academic achievement (among many others). At age 32, the study measured well-being.
Surprisingly, though psychologists have spent careers asking what in childhood leads to bad stuff like psychopathologies, nobody had asked what in childhood leads to good stuff like well-being. Authors Ollson, Nada-Raja, Williams and McGee changed that. (Note: the fourth author’s first name is Rob – apparently feeling good is not, in fact, good enough for Bobby McGee.)
The factor that most pointed toward adult well-being was social connectedness as an adolescent (0.62 correlation, if you’re into that sort of thing). Academic achievement was a much weaker predictor of adult well-being, at 0.12.
For geeky parents and perhaps also parents of geeks, this should give us pause.
Hopefully, it makes you pause long enough to take a peek with me inside the data. The crux seems this: higher social connection leads to well-being; our geeky kids may struggle with social connection; so as parents, if we want our kids to be well adults, it may fall to us to give them a swift kick in the social pants.
This study defined four possible zones of the social connectedness pants to kick: quality of social attachments, participation in organized clubs and groups, self-perceived competencies or strengths, and life satisfaction.
First, a large part of social attachment is your teenager’s relationship with you, the parent – the better you relate with your teenager, the more likely he or she is to have high well-being as an adult. Nearly as important and equally as difficult to imagine as your teenager liking you, is your teenager liking school.
But social connectedness and liking school in no way implies that a kid has to be popular in order to become a well adult. More important than being the star quarterback is “having someone to talk to if they had a problem or felt upset about something,” the authors write. And participation in clubs and groups in no way implies sports. Band is just as good as football. It’s group membership and not necessarily athletic worship that builds well-being.
Finally and importantly, no matter the objective facts of a teen’s life, how a teen evaluates and values their life predicts well-being as a 32-year-old. Are they optimistic about the future, independent, and generally busy? If so, A) you have a teen that smushes every popular stereotype of Western culture, and B) you have a teen who’s likely to grow into a very well adult.