Parents and teachers want children to grow up to be happy and successful. In other words, we want children to thrive. As adults, we often think success will make us happy. A vast array of research, however, indicates happiness precedes success in adults, and achievements do not always make adults happier. Until recently, no research considered whether happiness during childhood or even infancy might predict adult success. In a new study, I found that happiness during infancy predicted childhood IQ and adult educational success.

To gauge happiness and its benefits, we look at how often children (or adults) experience positive and negative emotions..Specifically, positive emotions like joy or love increase creativity, problem-solving and kindness. Thus, the more children experience positive emotions, the more time they spend playing, learning and socializing. By contrast, children experiencing more negative emotions like sadness or anger will have fewer opportunities to learn because they are focused on getting rid of or avoiding whatever is bothering them.

Thus, happiness precedes success because the more children experience positive emotions, the more time they spend building skills and relationships that help them in the future.

In my 29-year study, I used the Fullerton Longitudinal Study (FLS). In 1978 the FLS research team recruited 130 parents with babies for a study that now has run for more than 30 years. Early on, parents reported on their background (for instance, education level, employment). When each baby was 18 months old, one parent reported how often her or his baby expressed positive and negative emotions and researchers measured the infant's IQ. When babies were children (ages 6 to 8), they completed IQ tests. When babies had grown into 29-year-old adults, they reported how many years of education they had completed and their life satisfaction.

As expected, I found that infant positive emotions, but not negative emotions, predicted adult educational success at age 29, and these differences were not explained by socioeconomic status (SES) or IQ during infancy. In short, regardless of intelligence during infancy or parents' wealth, happier babies were more likely to graduate from high school and college.

Further, babies who were happier had more growth in their IQ scores between infancy and childhood, suggesting that happier babies learn more between infancy and childhood.

Happiness during other parts of childhood should have similar benefits for exploration, learning and socializing that cultivate future success (unfortunately, we did not measure it at other points during childhood).

These happier babies aren't just growing up to be successful, they are also happier adults. One might think that happiness is dictated by wealth or intelligence, but happiness was not linked to or determined by SES or IQ. Although the FLS sample had a wide range of parent education levels and types of jobs, it was a low-risk sample. Children raised in more adverse conditions are likely to experience fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions that could reduce happiness. Other studies have found high adversity is linked to lower IQs, poorer academic performance and decreased happiness.

Another important clarification is that happiness is about how often, not how intensely, emotions are experienced. Parents wishing to help their children cultivate greater happiness can focus on small changes they can make in their day-to-day lives to cultivate more positive moments (for instance, playing together). Parents do not need to outdo themselves (or others) and aim for intense experiences or "best day (or birthday) ever" for their children. Although peak experiences can be fun, they also tend to be exhausting for both children and their parents, which can lead to frustration and conflict.

Finally, other researchers and I are exploring when and why some children are happier than others or whether we can increase it. Happiness during infancy and childhood is predicted by relationships with caregivers and teachers or by learning new skills. Inexpensive and easy-to-do activities like practicing acts of kindness or gratitude can boost happiness. We can use these activities in hopes they help children to grow into happy and successful adults.

So, what can we take from all of this? Happiness (at all ages) is important for learning and central to success. Further, we can aim for simple and inexpensive ways to create happiness by connecting with children, playing with them, modeling kindness or practicing gratitude—without overthinking it or aiming for peak experiences. Families, schools and policymakers worried about academic performance might want to think carefully before eliminating programs or activities such as music, arts and sports that cultivate happiness. Most importantly, our children's joy and laughter can set a foundation for future success.

More to Explore

How Can We Boost IQs of "Dull Children"? A Late Adoption Study. M. Duyme, A.-C. Dumaret and S. Tomkiewicz in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 96, No. 15, pages 8790–8794; July 20, 1999.

The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead To Success? S. Lyubomirsky, L. King and E. Diener in Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 131, No. 6, pages 803–855; 2005.

The Cost of Chronic Stress in Childhood: Understanding and Applying the Concept of Allostatic Load. D. A. Katz, G. Sprang and C. Cooke in Psychodynamic Psychiatry, Vol. 40, No. 3, pages 469–480; 2012.

When Does Anxiety Help or Hinder Cognitive Test Performance? The role of working memory capacity. M. Owens, J. Stevenson, J. A. Hadwin and R. Norgate in British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 105, No. 1, pages 92–101; 2014.

Does Infant Happiness Forecast Adult Life Satisfaction? Examining Subjective Well-Being in the First Quarter Century of Life. J. K. Coffey, M. Warren and A. Gottfried in Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 16, pages 1401–1421; 2015.

Positive Psychology among Infants and Young Children. J. K. Coffey in The Handbook of Positive Psychology. Edited by S. J. Lopez and L. M. Edwards. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Cascades of Infant Happiness: Infant Positive Affect Predicts Childhood IQ and Adult Educational Attainment. J.K. Coffey in Emotion, publication ahead of print, July 1, 2019.