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Sad Children Outperform Happy Children. Really?

By Yvette Vignando - 24th September 2010

Last year I was drawn to a series of articles referring to research from the Universities of Virginia (United States) and Plymouth (United Kingdom) suggesting that for children, happiness may not always mean good academic results. If you have read Martin Seligman’s work on optimism and its value for children’s wellbeing and later success in life, this suggestion could leave you scratching your head and wondering.

However, the research is actually consistent with what I have read from Martin Seligman, author and proponent of positive psychology and the benefits of optimism. I was there at a conference on Emotional Intelligence in San Francisco in 2000 when Seligman told us that for lawyers, a degree of pessimism, was actually a bonus. He said that unlike the majority of career choices where research shows that an optimistic outlook is a strength, legal work requires lawyers to take a worst-case scenario approach to situations so that they are able to protect clients against future possible bad outcomes.

This point about optimism versus pessimism made perfect sense to me because at that stage I was in the process of transitioning out of my career as a lawyer. Martin Seligman’s message, among others at that conference, confirmed that I was making the right decision to move into the world of Emotional Intelligence and the exciting career possibilities ahead.

Anyway, back to happiness and children – one of the articles referring to this research said “Sadness indicates that something is amiss, triggering detail-orientated, analytical processing”. In the experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of Virginia and the University of Plymouth in England, it was found that neutral or sad moods in children lead them to pay more attention to detail in a particular task. At the same time, those researchers pointed out that “...existing research shows there are contexts in which a positive mood is beneficial for a child, such as when a task calls for creative thinking.

I wonder what this means for parenting? Should we keep our children’s moods neutral or on the sad side to make sure they cross their ‘t’s and dot their ‘i’s? Should we keep happy experiences to a minimum? Absolutely not! I also don’t believe we need to overthink our parenting to this degree.

I’m sure that if attention to detail is required, together with teachers, we can often teach our children this skill and at the same time teach kids to have a happy and generally optimistic approach to life. I love reading this kind of research and I highly value it but I would rather use it as background information, not as part of a recipe for parenting. For example, if my child had a more pessimistic temperament or tendency towards low moods, I would probably choose to teach him or her to be more optimistic. However, this kind of research would also give me the perspective of the upside of the occasional and normal low moods that we all experience from time to time.

The information about happiness versus sadness in children must be thought about together with the massive amount of research into the psychologically-immunising effects that positive experiences have on children’s mental health and success in life. I’m guessing that like me, most readers of this blog want their kids to be happy, outgoing, creative and positive members of our communities and if they miss a small detail in the process, so be it!  

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