An obsession with academic success and college acceptance (at least in the media) has been giving way recently to an anxiety that a certain class of over-involved so-called "helicopter parents" may be pushing their kids too hard. And now, new research shows that academic success may, indeed, not be the perfect preparation for a good life. One team looked at a group of New Zealanders over a period of more than thirty years, and what they found may offer a corrective to twenty-first century American achievement obsession.
For a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, psychologist Craig Olsson and his team analyzed data on 1,037 people born between 1972 and 1973, who were evaluated at regular intervals starting at age 3 and continuing into their thirties. During their childhood and adolescence, evaluators looked at their academic achievement — measured by standardized tests, and self-reports of their performance — and their "social connectedness" — measured by factors like their communication and connection with their peers and their participation in groups and clubs. Olsson et al looked at this data, and then at measures of the subjects' "well-being" at age 32 — their participation in community or hobby groups, their positive coping strategies, and their own feelings about whether they were kind, trustworthy, and reliable.
They found that social connectedness was highly correlated with adult well-being. Academic achievement, however, was not. The authors noted that they might have seen more of a connection if they'd included factors like job satisfaction in their measure of well-being, but they left these out on purpose. Their goal was to study not the traditional markers of success, but instead to look at peoples' "positive emotional functioning, sense of coherence, social engagement and character values." And as it turns out, kids' social lives seem to have a greater effect on the development of those qualities than their test scores do.
This came as no surprise to John Stanrock, psychologist and author of the textbook Adolescence. He says there's a general feeling among some child development experts that in an age of No Child Left Behind and constant standardized testing, "the social world of adolescence has totally been neglected." He adds that schools don't spend enough money on counseling services, which can help kids with difficulties fit in better.
Parents can be crucial too, says Stanrock, and they need to make kids feel comfortable coming to them with problems. He cites research [PDF] showing that parental trust and acceptance made kids more likely to disclose information about their lives: "parents need to create a setting of respect and support for their kids, so kids are willing to talk with them."
Tal Ben-Shahar, who has taught positive psychology at Harvard and written several books on happiness, says Olsson's study "fits into what we already know about wellbeing, and that is that the number one predictor of wellbeing is time you spend with people you care about and who care about you." He adds that research around the world has shown that "countries where people put a lot into their relationships, who invest in their relationships, are happier."
Ben-Shahar also notes that parents can have a negative effect on kids' social development without realizing it: "parents' expectations play a significant role in the choices children make, and if a parent believes that conventional success is more important than relationships — whether the parent communicates this explicitly or not — then the child is likely to lead his or life in accordance with this belief." Parents, he says, need to set examples for their kids by taking time for their own social relationships.
He cautions that we shouldn't assume conventional forms of success don't affect happiness at all — and the study authors too note that further research might find correlations between adolescent academic success and adult job satisfaction or economic security. But, he says, "relationships matter a great deal more." At the very least, Olsson and his team's research should give parents, educators, and kids themselves an alternate way of thinking about a good adult life, one that doesn't necessarily depend on acing every exam.