The Social Science of Raising Happy Kids

We wrote in Freakonomics about our views on parenting. Mostly, we were skeptical of how much parents could do to improve their kids’ futures. One can clearly be a terrible parent through neglect or abuse. The tougher question is whether being an “obsessive” parent who drags children to a never-ending procession of soccer practices, museums, and acting classes is better than just sitting on the couch watching Austin Powers with your kids.

One group of social scientists has devoted an enormous amount of effort to figuring out what makes kids happy. I have no idea if they’ve come up with the right answers, but they’ve put together a wealth of interesting materials for parents at the Greater Good Science Center. If you’d prefer something a little more academic, check out the science part of the Greater Good Web site.

Visiting the site got me thinking about what the goal of raising children should be. The Greater Good Center’s stated goal is to raise “happy and emotionally literate kids.” Those are laudable goals, but certainly not the only ones, or even the first ones that come to mind. I care most about raising kids who are happy and successful as adults, even if that happens to mean that they aren’t very happy as children. I want my kids to like me when they are grown up, but I also want them to do what I tell them to do, the first time I tell them to do it. I don’t want my kids to be sissies, the way I was — I want them to be tough, and able to take whatever criticism and misfortunes the real world has to offer. I also want them to be creative, and to take risks (but not too many risks).

I suspect that the folks who run the Greater Good Web site would disagree not only with what I am doing as a parent day to day, but even with the objectives I am trying to achieve. Nonetheless, there were a lot of things on the site with which I plan to experiment.

(Hat tip: Laura Beth Nielsen)

Lois Haultain

Wow! I have really enjoyed reading this blog and all 31 comments above. I have been a parenting educator for 8 years, and am the mother of four great individuals ( 16 to 23) and am researching for a course I am creating. My colleagues and I have settled on the name Raising Happy Kids for the course, which is being designed for parents with vulnerabilities: geographical isolation, mental health issues, drug or substance abuse issues, language difficulties etc This short course will be available for them to voluntarily attend as part of an early intervention program - to increase their kids' resilience and to lessen the likelihood of these families abusing or neglecting their children. The course aims to teach parents really simply and really well that their job is important, has long-term effects, and to give them strategies and methods that will enable their kids to be, in all honesty, probably better people than themselves, or happier, healthier, more successful adults. I have been wary of the name of the course because I too do not think happiness is a given or necessarily the greatest goal, but it is where a lot of people begin when they think about their lives and what they want for their kids. Every comment above has given me some things to ponder, whether to reinforce ideas/practices we have already, or to be aware of the kinds of things that parents out there are already believing and putting into practice. Thanks so much.



Wow, I was only going to comment that I heard a definite wink in Levitt's comment "even if that happens to mean that they aren't very happy as children" - which should be very familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of a child's temporary wants, but...
Romina, seriously?
"no one ever said that parents should be the guides of their children"
Actually, just about everyone says that.
Are you seriously suggesting that children should have physical needs only met and then they should be sent out into the world to figure it out for themselves? If you are, well, quite simply, you are extremely misguided.
Yes, parents ARE endowed with the mission of raising their children. I can't believe I'm even having to say that.

Aaron Cooper

Happy kids? It's the obsession of millions of parents nowadays, while research seems to be turning up evidence, again and again, that kids are more worried, anxious, and depressed than ever. There's a connection between those data and the happiness focus of parents. I've written about this (as a child psychologist) in I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy! Check out the book (Amazon is taking pre-publication orders.)


As someone who's worked extensively with kids (and is a 3rd generation educator), my view on what kids need is not happiness at all, but self-realization. The greatest transformation I saw in the kids I worked with was the point where they worked hard on something that produced tangible results. Not acing a test, not getting praise from adults, just doing something that they could recognize as worthwhile: build something, perform something, create something, help something or someone, etc. When they saw positive results of their actions, they became motivated. Until a kid realizes that what they do affects their world, they won't understand the meaning of anything that they do.

Age wasn't a big barrier: 9-year-olds who accomplished things worked hard to continue doing interesting stuff, 17-year-olds who hadn't yet but got started would turn their life around.


HTB- I would strongly argue that if your child is torturing animals, he's not happy. In fact, children who torture animals have often been tortured themselves.

I don't have children, but I have very clear and definite ideas about how I want to raise the ones I eventually have. I want them to be happy, but 'happy' is a generic, blanket term for saying, "I want you to grow to be healthy, independent, smart, and confident in the decisions you make, and if the decision to be a pro football player or guy who plays guitars in coffee shops is what truly makes you feel fulfilled, then I support that." Further, I hope that I raise my children in such a way that I need not require that they do justice and show mercy, but that doing those things comes naturally, and brings them joy as well. I want to raise my children so that THEY FIND HAPPINESS IN BEING GOOD PEOPLE.


An article appeared in The Guardian (UK) several years ago comparing the upbringing of two families: one based on discipline, the other based on self-learning through experience.

The article was fascinating as the second family would have only three rules: no harm to things or animals, family activities decided by majority vote (family had three children), everyone could do what they wanted otherwise (have dinner or not, choose what they wanted to wear, etc). The parents instead of constantly telling their kids "do this" or "don't do that", just led by example. Kids' thirst for learning did the rest and the kids would spontaneously help with house chores, be friendly and sociable with acquaintances and strangers, and be very responsible overall. It did open my eyes to a better way of inspiring kids than just simply telling them what to do.

Dan Hirschman

You should check out an article from the latest American Sociological Review (ASR):
Nonresident Father Involvement and Adolescent Well-Being: Father Effects or Child Effects? by Daniel N. Hawkins, Paul R. Amato, and Valarie King (December 2007).


There's no such thing as "happy kids"in real life. All well adjusted children feel sad from time to time. Parents who define this as a major problem rather than normal occurances in our everyday life are stupid. Sometimes unhappiness teaches us how to be succesful and to strive harder. Let the children be children. Love them and teach them how to be grateful at all times.Be a good example. You can't be sad if you are always grateful. How about contentment?


#2 wrote:
> If you figure out how to get kids to do something the
> first time you ask them to, please let us know.

Actually, that's already known. In economic terms, you have to make the 'cost' of instant compliance appear lower (to the kid) than the 'cost' of delay or refusal.

Historically, this has been achieved by increasing the 'cost' of delay or refusal by hitting the kids every time they don't respond immediately. So the parents says (in effect), "Put your shoes away now or I'll hit you," instead of "Put your shoes away."

I DO NOT recommend this approach (or even the goal, for that matter).

Kelly Corrigan

As one of the primary consumers of the Greater Good work, an appeal for me was that there was a correlation between happiness and success. For children and adults.

I survived late stage cancer in my 30s and since then, have become less tolerant of trading NOW for THEN. i.e. Now they are unhappy but someday, they will be better off for it. There's a big assumption under that trade off that makes me nervous for those who make it.

Kelly Corrigan
Author, The Middle Place

Graham Chalfant

The greatest gift that a parent can give to their child is the knowledge that one can be happy regardless of the external circumstances. Happiness is an inside job. By going overboard with external activities, the parent is teaching that happiness is dependent on doing which means that the child will forever be searching for happiness outside of themselves. Happiness based on external circumstances or approval is a fool's game.


I'd argue that "getting your kids to do what you tell them the first time" is a goal one should be wary of. Particularly if you use a reward/punishment approach, it teaches them to fear authority and to go along with it unquestioningly. It's easier for the parent (and, later on, the child), but it's detrimental to critical thinking (if you did what all your predecessors said to do/think the first time, you'd never have written such an out of the box book). I think kids need to be encouraged to challenge their parents and parents should be encouraged to rationally explain decisions and rules to their children, stressing both rationality and individual acceptance of ideas on one's own accord instead of going along with mandates.

As for "emotionally literate," I take that as the ability to express one's self and to allow one's self to feel, instead of repressing. Boys, particularly, often have problems with this because society/parents don't encourage them to, hence why the Greater Good folks actively encourage it. It's not "being nice to everyone" so much as "recognizing and understanding that my feelings and the feelings of others are important."


Eric Beland

Hi Steven,

I loved Freakonomics. However, I strongly question your parental/environmental influence on intelligence thesis. I was a psychology major for undergrad, and if memory serves, there are a number of psychological studies which found strong effects in terms of the richness of environment, parenting and learning. Studies in both children and animals that indicate environmental factors--stimulating environments--are huge determinants of intelligence. Stimulating environments, even in rats (colorful rat tubes, running wheel, mazes) where causation as opposed to correlation is possible, predicted gray matter folds. I wish I had a better system for googling studies, but here's one example I found.

A stark anecdotal case can be seen here:

Being wrong in this regard is hazardous to parents--learned helplessness is dangerous. Why provide a better environment when it won't help? I would love to see more on this if there's to be a Freakonomics II because when I see 2 clocks reading 5:30 and your watch says noon, thats a good time to double-check things. I'd like to hear more on this conundrum you've found...

Anyhow, thanks for a good book. Take care,



Stephen de las Heras

Being an obsessive parent who drags your kid to all sorts of extracurriculars isn't the opposite of an apathetic parent. Parents who push their kids into activities they have no interest in, overschedule them, and live vicariously through them, are also examples of bad parenting.

My guiding principle is not having any expectations. Parents have no right to define what success is for their children, who need to discover their own passions and interests themselves. Of course we can help them do this, but never by pushing. And there are certainly some parents who are so dedicated and adept at nurturing their kids that the effect on them is huge. The fathers of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods spring to mind as high profile examples.

And "emotional literacy" is not something that comes naturally to most young boys. I think that's just code for everybody being nice to each-other all the time. Which is neither realistic nor desirable.


A mom

If you figure out how to get kids to do something the first time you ask them to, please let us know. If you think Freakonomics was a hit -- that book would sell millions!

The info on greater good seems really solid and designed to help kids be happier now for exactly the reasons you say -- happier kids are more likely to be resilient, successful, confident, and cooperative.

Foo Fighter

Fundamentally the goal of having kids is to propagate the species.

The way you raise your kids should result in them being able to attract mates when they are adults and to have the desire to further propagate the species.

What makes (or should make; I guess I'm being an idealist here) a person attractive as a mate? I'd say the ability to provide the hierarchy of needs to their potential mate, from the physiological to the self-actualizing.

It sounds like the Great Good guys are focusing towards the top of the pyramid and you're more worried about the base to middle.

(I'm aware of criticisms of the hierarchy of needs, but think it at least makes a good starting point for discussions like this.)


I wonder if it is even possible to raise children who are happy and successful adults if they are not first emotionally literate or if their childhood isn't on balance happy. Certainly the Greater Good Science Center posts about fostering a growth mindset are relevant for raising children who take on challenges ( and can withstand misfortune (


The parents who "just want you to be happy" drive me nuts.

So if he seems happy while torturing small animals and throwing rocks at passing people, that's okay because he's "happy"?

And if she inherited the family's depression problems, but she manages to take care of herself and makes sensible choices about money, time, energy and people, then that's not okay because she doesn't feel "happy"?

My brain happens to be wired for happiness: I'm seriously ill and I'm still "happy." In fact, I type this from my bed, because I'm too exhausted and in too much pain to get up -- but I'm happy!

I have a co-worker whose brain is wired for depression. He's not happy. In fact, a really, really, really good day for him is just to be neutral, despite trying basically every possible treatment. We have agreed that I'm very lucky to be wired for happiness. Imagine being him, and having every parent around you say, "I just want my child to be happy..." Wouldn't you feel like a total failure as a human? There's no way he can win that game.

This line about happiness being paramount is particularly irritating from supposedly religious people. No traditional religions assert that happiness is more important than righteousness or justice or truth.

Jesus did not say, "I have come to validate your individual, superficial idea of happiness as the most important value." He said, "For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world -- to testify to the truth."

I think the world would be a better place if all of our kids heard throughout their lives, "I want you to be kind and compassionate" or "I want you to do justice and love mercy" instead of "Anything, so long as you're 'happy'."



As the father of an only son, I, too, ponder the best way to raise him.

First, I have found that he will NOT be raised the way I envisioned it--ha! I always saw him in my minds eye sitting quietly while I made him recite his scriptures, repeat the alphabet, say his numbers, and so forth. Not so! No, he must take a flying leap on the bed with each key word of the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father, which are in--watch out!--HEAVEN! Hallowed be Thy NAME!). I have decided to be happy that he is excited about the matter--especially since he is actually memorizing it.

Second, I have the very deep belief that every generation is to seek to raise their kids better than they were raised. I was brought up in the most loving and wonderful home imaginable...yet my father and mother will occasionally offer that they wished they had done this or that differently. I'm listening. Also, there is the siren call of saying to yourself, "Hey, my mom and dad did this, and I turned out alright, didn't I?" and think that is the blueprint to the future of yoru children. But do you REALLY want your children to turn out just like you??? I DO NOT! I want my son to be much, much better than I am!

Third, there must be a balance between a good childhood and a good future. Contrary to Steve's well-meaning point, I'm not sure an unhappy childhood will ever turn out to be a happy, healthy, well-adjusted adulthood. We have to juggle both balls--the type of childhood our children are having...and the training into them of what sort of adult we wish them to be. I have decided that my son, to the best of my ability, will have a happy, carefree childhood. Yes, he must be trained to be respectful and all that sort of thing, but I'm not going to put the weight of the world on his young shoulders--let him enjoy life fully and for as long as possible, for there will be many years when that will no longer be possible.

Fifth, I don't have my life figured out all that well, in my opinion. But I DO know the top three priorities of life, and I am seeking to instill them in my son: God, Family, Health.

Not church. God.
Not nation. Family.
Not money. Health

I figure if he gets these three right, he will be a man of integrity, a man who loves and is close to his family, and a man who can enjoy it all. And there are a lot of billionaires who would give it all away to have those things.

Lastly, I seek to become a better man through the raising of my son. It's not all about's about me, too. That means I have to control my anger at times, for my son must not be taught that it is alright to not control oneself. That means I go to work without complaint, for my son must be taught the honor of a honest work, be it ever so humble. That means I seek to treat his mother (my wife) with respect, for it makes for a harmonious home and teaches him how to interact with women. It means placing core truths and scriptures in his heart day after day, for one day they will guide him through hard places when I cannot be with him. And the fulfillment of all of these "duties" to my son serve to make me a better man at the same time.

Before I go, I will answer Steve's question about how to make a child obey the first time. I DO NOT SUPPORT THIS, NOR DO I USE IT, but I learned it from an uncle.

First, remember this is from a different time and world (rural Tennessee, 1960s). He told his son, "Son, I will always let you sleep as long as I can before you must arise and get ready for school. But when I wake you, I expect you to get up right then." All went well for a while. But then came that morning when, after waking his son, he noticed that he had not come to the table. He found that he had went back to sleep. Without a word, he got a "hickory switch," pulled back the covers and gave his son a spanking. It had to hurt--especially coming from a dead sleep. But the key is that HE NEVER HAD TO DO IT AGAIN. He refused to give multiple warnings and requests. And by acting immediately in such matters, he trained his son to respond immediately.

Me? I can't do that. I give my son chances to obey me. Of course, barbarian that I am, if I tell him that I will spank him if I have to "get up," I always spank him if I indeed have to "get up." Why? Because it's a matter of integrity between me and him...and it demonstrates that I mean what I say. I hate it, but thankfully, it rarely happens and my son seems to be one of the happiest children on earth. Thank God for that!



@Foo Fighter, you're confusing what your genes "want" evolutionarily -- they build you a certain way because it's been historically more likely to result in an adult that has a lot of children, leading to the prevalence of genes that build you that certain way -- with the goal of the complex organism that is a human parent.

The "goal" of having kids, for your genes, is to produce a successful mating adult carrying the same genes, but the goal of having kids, for YOU, depends on what you're like in general. It could be to enjoy the process of raising a child, to leave a legacy in the world when you're gone, or to have a little helper to boss around.