Little is known about the long-term consequences of positive wellbeing in childhood in the general population. We used the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (the British 1946 birth cohort) to test associations between adolescent positive wellbeing and social functioning in midlife.
Temperament and behaviour at ages 13 and 15 years were rated by school teachers on a range of criteria. These mostly referred to absence or presence of conduct and emotional problems, but four items allowed positive ratings: ‘very popular with other children’, ‘unusually happy and contented’, ‘makes friends extremely easily’ and ‘extremely energetic, never tired’. In addition, at age 16 years survey members self-completed the Maudsley Personality Inventory, from which a summary measure of extraversion was derived, as this was previously found to be associated with midlife positive wellbeing in this cohort.
Being a happy child, defined as receiving at least two of the above teacher ratings, was positively associated with midlife functioning and wellbeing, specifically a low probability of lifetime emotional problems, a high frequency of contact with friends or relatives, engagement in social activities, and to a lesser extent feeling satisfied with accomplishments in working life. These associations were independent of father’s social class, childhood cognition, educational attainment, and midlife occupational social class. There were no independent associations between being a happy child and educational or occupational attainment, being married, engagement in prosocial activities, taking leadership in community activities, and with life satisfaction in general or with family life. Extraversion was associated with a low probability of lifetime emotional problems, high engagement in social activities, being married, general midlife life satisfaction, and satisfaction with family life, but not with social contact, prosocial activity, leadership activity, or work satisfaction. While childhood conduct and emotional problems were associated with few of the social and life satisfaction outcomes, the former were negatively associated with educational and occupational attainment, and positively with divorce, whereas the latter were negatively associated with being married.
Prospectively rated childhood wellbeing has long-term beneficial links to adult functioning; our results also support the view that positive wellbeing has a unique impact on these outcomes, and does not merely represent the absence of mental ill-health.