Sunday, December 20, 2015

Promote children's happiness through character


I had the tremendous pleasure of training in psychology with Dr. Chris Peterson at the University of Michigan. Chris was one of the founders of positive psychology and a pioneer in the field when it comes to understanding character strengths. After years of scouring history across cultures all over the world, and thousands of hours of research, he identified what are now known as the 24 character strengths represented by human civilization. These character strengths fall into 6 larger categories: Wisdom & Knowledge, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, Transcendence, and Courage. He then set out with his most-trusted colleagues to understand how character strengths contribute to well-being, happiness, success, and leadership. His work has changed the way psychologists think about individuals, schools deliver lessons to children, and the military identifies and trains leaders.

Part of the challenge of doing this type of science is that character isn't easily measured, so much of the inspiration I get from his success as a scientist is in the creative approaches he took to understand character strengths in different groups of people. I am a child and adolescent psychologist, so there is one project in particular that highlights how he and his dear friend and colleague, Dr. Nansook Park, looked at character strengths in children.

They were interested in understanding:

1) whether character could even be measured in children
2) what character strengths were common among children
3) which character strengths were common among the happiest children

To answer these questions, they recruited parents of children between the ages of 3 and 9 years in pediatricians' offices, toy stores, daycare centers, and through a parenting list-serve. Parents were provided with a link to a password protected website where they were asked to provide demographic information, and then provide a "few hundred words" on their child's "personal characteristics." They were asked, "What can you tell us so that we might know your child well?"

Ultimately, 680 parents described their children in an average of 211 words. Parents reported things like, my child "loves to look at paintings," "always tells the truth," "is not afraid to do things," "always asks questions," "helps out around the house," "is cautious," or is "full of energy." Just to name a few. The research team then conducted what we call a content analysis. This means that they went through each description, and coded whether the description included each of the 24 character strengths, and then a more global rating for how happy the child seems to be based on the description on a scale from 0 (depressed, anxious, unhappy) to 7 (extremely happy).

They found that the most common character strengths among young children are Love, Kindness, Creativity, Humor, and Curiosity. The least common character strengths among young children are Authenticity, Gratitude, Modestly, Forgiveness, and Open-mindedness. Thus, they identified a way to measure character strengths among young children, but also the strengths that are developmentally most common.

They then looked at how the presence of each of these character strengths correlated with the child's happiness. They found that children with the parent-reported strengths in Hope, Zest, and Love were all significantly related to happiness, meaning kids with these character strengths had higher happiness ratings than their peers without them. Hope is defined as "expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about." Kids coded as having the strength in Hope were described by their parents as, "always looking on the bright side." Zest is defined as "approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated." Kids coded as having the strength in Hope were described by their parents as, "full of energy." And Love is defined as "valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated; being close to people." Kids coded as having the strength in Hope were described by their parents as, "has close friends" and "is devoted to younger brother." You can find the definitions of all of these 24 character strengths, and even take your own free 10-minute assessment of character strengths at the website for the Values in Action Institute on Character by clicking here.

Despite my immense admiration for Drs. Park and Peterson, this study is not without its limitations. In particular, parents tend to describe their children in light of how they would like their children to be. I will likely describe my future children as being intelligent, bookworms, who love science, while that may not necessarily be how they will describe themselves. To this point, the article explains that characters strengths that were painted in a negative light were not coded. For example, kids who played "mean pranks and jokes" were not considered as having the strength of humor. Its possible that those parents simply didn't value humor, and therefore described that strength more negatively than families who do. Overall, this limitation highlights that some aspects of character will always be mysterious because children's ability to explain complicated ideas like gratitude and forgiveness is underdeveloped compared to their ability to behave that way.Consistent with that notion, they also found that older children who had character strengths in gratitude were more likely to have high happiness scores, suggesting that as children get older gratitude becomes a pathway to happiness.

Despite the limitation of having parents report on their children in potentially biased ways, these result still suggest that promoting Love, Hope, Zest, and Gratitude in the lives of young children may be a pathway to happiness. Interestingly, these character strengths are also linked to better health, longevity, and happiness in adults. So the real question is how to cultivate these strengths in children?

Luckily some people, like my friend, colleague, and fellow Michigan alumni, Mike Erwin are tackling that task in public schools around the country with The Positivity Project. The Positivity Project is dedicated to promoting character education by developing an elementary school curriculum based upon Dr. Chris Peterson and his contemporaries' scientific findings on character strengths. For more on Mike Erwin, The Positivity Project and the first school to implement the program watch this short and inspiring video!

Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2006). Character strengths and happiness among young children: Content analysis of parental descriptions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 323-341.

3 comments:

  1. Children should be made happy in every case and making it happen should be the foremost objective. I think that building a good character will not only make children personality good but makes them happy.

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