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Happy Teens Less Likely to Commit Crimes or Use Drugs


Happiness is a term that means different things to different people, but in general we all wish to have a mental state that is characterized by positive emotions. Scientifically, happiness is associated with substantial physical health benefits, such as lowered heart rate, lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and less concentration of a plasma connected to heart disease.

Americans learn early in life to seek happiness. While we think of young children as being quite happy, teens are sometimes viewed as being moody and withdrawn. However, new research shows that having a happy teen will help deter them from drug use and may also keep them from committing crimes. Promoting happiness during the adolescent years can have great benefits to society as a whole.

Supportive Family Environments are Important to Children's Happiness

Bill McCarthy, a UC-Davis sociology professor and Teresa Casey, a postdoctoral researcher, have written a paper entitled “Get Happy! Positive Emotion, Depression and Juvenile Crime.” It was presented at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. For the research, the authors used data from nearly 15,000 seventh- to ninth-grade students in the federal funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health from 1995 to 1996.

McCarthy and Casey find that about 29% of youth surveyed reported committing at least one criminal offense. Eighteen percent admitted to using at least one illegal drug. After correlating these reports with self-assessments of emotional well-being, the researchers found that teens who indicated that they were more depressed than happy were more likely to have been involved in crime or drug use compared to those who viewed themselves as being more often happy. Even youth with minor depression were much more likely to commit crime or use drugs.

Read: Mythbuster - Money Can Buy at Least a Little Happiness

On one hand, the data makes good common sense. Happy teens are often from supportive households, they form strong bonds with others, have a positive self-image, and have developed socially valued cognitive and behavioral skills, write McCarthy. But in the past, some research has linked the pursuit of happiness in teens with addiction. Janis Whitlock of Cornell University notes that happiness chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, endogenous opiods, and norepinephrine are like drugs. Overtime, we become “addicted” to the rush.

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The difference is likely the personal definition of happiness. If one associates happiness with the possession of material goods, they might be tempted to take what isn’t theirs. Fortunately, most teens do not define happiness in these terms. A 2005 study by Harris Interactive finds that most kids between the ages of 13 and 18 define happiness as a state of being – “Simply being happy, no matter what I do.” Most teens believe that happiness is an achievable goal.

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How can parents foster a state of happiness in their children? A separate study by the Associated Press and MTV finds that nearly three-quarters of young kids between the ages of 13 and 24 say that their relationship with their parents makes them happy and that spending time with them is what they most want out of life. Kids also say that staying in school is important for future happiness, which correlates with the early Harris Interactive study where youth responded that education is the most important path toward achieving their long-term goals.
Parents can also support kids by finding their own happiness as well. The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that when parents were depressed or aggressive toward their children, depressive symptoms increased among the teens. Poor parental behavior also predicted increases in depression.

McCarthy sums up his study by saying, “Our results suggest that the emphasis placed on happiness and well-being … is warranted. In addition to their other benefits, programs and policies that increase childhood and adolescent happiness may have a notable effect on deterring nonviolent crime and drug use.”

“Get Happy! Positive Emotion, Depression, and Juvenile Crime,” was presented on Monday, Aug. 22 at the American Sociological Association’s 106th Annual Meeting.

Why teens addict: The elusive search for happiness
Published on January 6, 2010 by Janis Whitlock, MPH, PhD

Schwartz, O., Dudgeon, P., Sheeber, L., Yap, M., Simmons, J., & Allen, N. (2011). Parental Behaviors During Family Interactions Predict Changes in Depression and Anxiety Symptoms During Adolescence Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10802-011-9542-2