The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness - Counselor's Corner

Lisa Larsen, LPC
Beyond the basic physical needs of a child, lies the process through which adult happiness is created. Children are remarkably resilient and will grow and flourish when given the slightest opportunity. We know through years of research and data that even children who struggle with challenges socially, economically, or environmentally can flourish and grow within a framework of love and support. 

In his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Dr. Edward M. Hallowell shares the Five Steps that create and sustain lifelong joy: 

Point 1: Connection
Connection is the most important starting point in this cycle. In its natural form of unconditional love from a parent to a child, it is the single most important childhood root of adult happiness. Growing up with a strong sense of connectedness is what Erik Erikson called "basic trust," which develops a feeling of safety and security. This basic trust is what gives a child the courage to take risks in the world, to try new things, to explore his or her environment. Through this exploration, an attitude of optimism is created which can be one of the stronger predictors of adult happiness and protects against depression and despair. 

Point 2: Play
The real "work" of childhood is simple - PLAY. Research has shown us that sadly, many children these days rush from one "enriching" activity to the next (tournaments, rehearsals, tutors, lessons, etc.) with little to no time to just play. Remember, a child at play is a child at work. Play provides opportunities to learn how to be alone and find satisfaction in doing something creative and enjoyable. Play builds imagination, problem-solving skills, the ability to deal with conflict and negotiate solutions with others, and to learn how to tolerate frustration at not getting it right the first time. Play generates dreams, beliefs, and joy. Play becomes its own reward and plants the seeds of "flow" (a state of mind in which humans create happiness, forgetting time or where they are). As a person creates more activities that put one in a state of flow, the happier that person will be day after day. 

Point 3: Practice
As parents and adults, we understand the importance of practice. How? Through our own trial and error, experience, and...endless practice. Rare is a child who can ride a bike the first time without falling off. However, the drive to be able to ride on their own makes practice tolerable and well worth it in the end. Frustration and mistakes become bearable. Failure becomes the first step on the road to mastery. With practice comes discipline and the process through which we lead responsible adult lives. Practice often involves receiving help and instruction, which is another essential life skill - how to accept coaching. 

Point 4: Mastery
There is no greater feeling than hearing "I can do it!" and "Now I get it!" The roots of self esteem lie not in praise but in mastery. When a child masters a skill she could not do before, her self esteem naturally rises. Mastery also provides confidence, leadership skills, initiative, and the enduring desire to work hard. 

Point 5: Recognition
Mastery organically leads to recognition and approval by parents, peers, and larger groups overall. When you learn to ride your bike, you can join your friends who also ride and gain recognition and approval from a wider circle of friends and peers. In addition, the child feels an internal sense of pride for who she or he IS and not just for external approval. Too often, children learn early on to rely solely on outer praise and approval, which contributes to a life-long game of people-pleasing while suppressing their true selves. Mastery reinforces their own sense of belongingness and value. This sense of value and connectedness is the foundation of moral behavior and striving to do what is "right" and best. 

These Five Steps happen logically, one after the other and although it may not be a smooth progression every time, it is the core process through which we create happy, fulfilled adults with the drive and perseverance to handle any of life's challenges. 

Check out: The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness by Edward M. Hallowell, MD


Lisa Hellmer, LPC
St. Gabriel’s Counselor
St. Gabriel's Catholic School is an Independent Catholic school in Austin TX, educating children in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school.