Campus News

The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

Story posted April 08, 2003

Ned Hallowell exuded warmth and happiness when he took the stage at Common Hour on Friday - fitting since happiness was his topic. Hallowell is a psychiatrist who founded a center in Massachusetts for cognitive and emotional health, and he teaches at the Harvard Medical School. He is author of the book "Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness," his topic at Common Hour.

"What I would like to talk to you about is happiness," he said at the beginning of his lecture. "You know as psychiatrists, we've been specializing for the longest while on misery."

The idea for the research that led to his book stemmed from a conversation he had with his wife. They have three children of their own, and they were interested in finding a book with advice on how to raise children to become happy adults. They couldn't find any books that addressed their questions so, Hallowell joked, he wrote his own. In the past 10 to 15 years, happiness has become a popular area of research, and Hallowell drew on data from other researchers as well as interviewing thousands of people - educators, parents, psychiatrists, psychologists, and happy adults.

"What is this word - happiness - that I'm pinning so much on?" Hallowell asked. "My definition of happiness is simply, the feeling that your life is going well."

The attainment of happiness can be affected by genetics and natural temperament, but genetics don't tell the whole story and "this does not need to be left to chance," he said. "There's a lot you can do to...promote happiness, and there's a lot you can do to retard it as well."

Hallowell research pointed to five basic steps leading to happiness.

The steps are:

And then the cycle repeats itself beginning again with Connection.

"If you follow these five steps as a child, as a grown up you will find the state called happiness," he said.

A lot of popular models of happiness have looked more like a pyramid and have implied that it took great effort to attain happiness and that not everyone could reach the pinnacle. Hallowell doesn't find this model to be effective. Happiness, he said, is accessible to everyone.

The first step, Connection, is the most important. It isn't an objective state, but rather the feeling someone has of being a part of something larger than him- or herself. For children, this begins with their parents.

"Unconditional love is the greatest gift that a parent can give a child," Hallowell said.

This often flows naturally from the experience of becoming a parent.

"From the moment you have a child, you are changed," Hallowell said. "You fall completely in love with this peeing and pooping machine." Parents are constantly surprised by the depth of their feelings for their children, and it's important for them to convey their feelings to their children.

"Most parents and most kinds don't realize how important it [unconditional love] is," he said. "It's the best inoculation you will ever get, and what does it inoculate you against - despair."

All is not lost, however if a child doesn't get this kind of love from a parent. Children are resilient, and many find unconditional love in someone besides a parent. Hallowell is never willing to give up on someone's ability to experience this love, and he said he has been amazed at the capacity for healing he's seen.

"The 'force,' if there is a 'force' in life and not in the movies that we can name and see and apply - it's this force called unconditional love, Hallowell said. "It is so underestimated in its power."

If an adult never received unconditional love as a child and seems unable to feel it as an adult, Hallowell recommended that they get a pet as a way to access this type of love. "Everybody ought to have a pet unless the zoning laws prohibit it or you're allergic," he said, "It's true, pets produce poops, but most connections produce poops. Pets are more straight forward about it."

Just as unconditional love is a powerful asset in life, love given with conditions, particularly from a parent, is detriment. One scholar Hallowell interviewed said he didn't know what the childhood roots of happiness are, but that he new the roots of unhappiness - parents who expect more than their children can ever produce.

"Conditional love is a curse that can last a lifetime," Hallowell said. "But unconditional love is equally a blessing that can absolutely be a glow that surrounds you your entire life."

Hallowell used a quote he'd heard from a rabbi to sum up happiness: "Happiness is not having what you want, it's wanting what you have." Those who have felt unconditionally loved, he said, generally develop that kind of attitude.

The next step in Connection is developing what Hallowell called "a connected life." A connected life means building up connections to people, activities, organizations, the past, spirituality, beauty, ideas, and much more. It also means having a connection to oneself. Though Hallowell doesn't mean to "love yourself" - a concept he thinks has been overused. ("It's been my experience that an awful lot of people who love themselves shouldn't," he said.) Rather, what Hallowell means is a comfort and ease with oneself and others.

The remaining four steps in the process flow naturally out of connectedness. Connections lead to Play, or the discovery of what stimulates one's mind.

"Play is any activity where your imagination gets involved," Hallowell said. "The opposite of play is doing exactly what you're told."

Play can be found through music, math, history, carpentry. It's anything that draws someone in and the mind. Throwing oneself into play leads to what another scholar, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has called "flow."

"You are one with the moment," Hallowell said. "That's when we're happiest; that's when we are at our peak."

Finding those things that spark the imagination and "playing" at them repeatedly is Practice. Continued practice (obviously not a chore in Hallowell' lexicon) leads to Mastery, which is the key to self-esteem and motivation, Hallowell said.

Mastery is not about being the best at something, but about seeing improvement and progress. Mastery, again, leads naturally to the last step, Recognition, when other people- those with whom a child has connections - observe the skill and praise him or her for it.

This recognition further connects a child with a group and, according to Hallowell is the root of moral behavior.

"Moral behavior at its most enduring, at its most enthusiastic comes from your heart," he said. "Moral behavior or immoral behavior flow naturally from states of connection or disconnection."

Play, practice and mastery of anything that makes "your brain light up" perpetuate this process, in childhood and beyond. (Hallowell has only a few exceptions to this - drugs or what he referred to as "mechanical drugs, like Nintendo.") As adult, play in a job leads to happiness at work. And the activities one eventually masters and finds recognition in, lead back to connections.

"There is nothing that has to bring this process to an end," Hallowell said. "Indeed, it is self perpetuating."

The role of parents in this process is to help and to allow children to find those connections and those things at which they wish to play. Many in the audience wondered how our achievement and goal-oriented society affect this process. According to Hallowell, goals aren't the key to happiness, but they should be a part of the natural process he defined.

"The best goals are those that arise out of play," he said. "I'm not saying don't make goals. I'm saying be careful where they come from and what you sacrifice to get them."

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