Key Factors Driving Kids Happiness
Global Kids: Generally happy but vulnerable
Over the past decade, as the world has developed and more people are lifted out of poverty, the pursuit of happiness has become a “hot trend”. From best-sellers like “Stumbling on Happiness” and a significant amount of social research, we now know that people in some countries are happier than others and that we aren’t very good at predicting who is happy and who is not. However, virtually all of this research has been conducted with adults. So, the question is- how are the kids faring? In this study we assessed kids’ happiness and found that while happiness is “a normal” state for children, there are significant differences across age, ethnicity (within the U.S.), and countries.
Happiness is a “normal state” for kids
Given the constant stream of bad news in the media and challenging times faced by so many families, you might expect today’s kids to be feeling pretty unhappy. However, that does not appear to be the case. Virtually all kids claim to be happy either “all of the time” or “most of the time”.
Part of the reason kids’ happiness is so strong is because they fare well on two major drivers of happiness: family and friends. Most kids feel very close to their family (99% agree; 82% strongly agree) and have very good friends (98% agree; 65% strongly agree).
Contrary to expectations, U.S. kids are not the happiest.
Consistent with the U.S. obsession with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, American kids are happy. But they are not the happiest. In fact, they are basically tied for fourth with Germany.
To examine differences across countries, we created an index of happiness based on kids’ responses to a series of questions. These questions included an overall happiness measure (How often do you feel happy?: All of the time, Most of the time, Some of the time, or Never). They also included 8 other measures that reflect different aspects or key drivers of happiness, such as “I sometimes feel stressed out”, “I think the world is a good place”, “I am very close to my family”, or “I often feel lonely”. For each country, we aggregated responses to these questions and divided it by the global average (across all countries) to create an index of happiness.
Based on this index, kids in Latin or Spanish cultures are the happiest. The least happy kids are in Japan and Poland.
These differences appear to partly reflect cultural differences in family orientation. In this research (as well as other social science research), we see that children’s happiness ratings are positively correlated with family closeness. Accordingly, in the Latin/Spanish countries, kids reported feeling closer to their families than those in some of the other countries (especially Japan, Poland and China).
Despite general happiness, many kids are feeling some stress- especially in Germany and Japan.
Across the globe, about two-thirds of kids report “sometimes feeling stressed out” and most kids (83%) say they “have too many things to do”. However, by-in-large, these feelings are mild. In other words, most kids feel this way “a little”, rather than “a lot”.
Interestingly, Japanese and German kids report being the most stressed. In the case of Japanese kids, it appears that the 2011 tsunami has been a major contributing factor. This is certainly apparent in their responses to open-ended questions like “Imagine you ruled the world and you had the power to make the world a better place. What 3 things would you change?”
- “Reduce the number of earthquakes” Boy, 6 years, Japan
- “I would make a town that’s strong against the tsunami” Girl, 9 years, Japan
- “I would do away with nuclear power plants” Boy, 9 years, Japan
In the case of German kids, a recent article in the Daily Mail (5/2012) explains “.. The strain has become too much to bear for youngsters in Germany, resulting in the first kindergarten for stressed-out under-fives. Toddlers as young as three chill out with massages, foot baths and by walking through wet grass without shoes and socks…. It comes as childcare professionals warn that youngsters are taking on board the worries of recession, money and security at an age when they cannot understand what the words mean, let alone spell them.”
Some things don’t improve with age: Younger kids are happier than older kids
As kids age they appear to grow less happy. For example, over three quarters of six-year olds (76%) say “I feel happy most of the time”. By the time they are twelve years old, less than two-thirds (62%) feel that way. Correspondingly, younger kids are slightly happier being their age than are older kids. This contradicts the commonly held assumption that kids always wish to be older. Perhaps we need to distinguish between the desire for what older kids have versus being older per se.
This decline in happiness coincides with (or is partly driven by) their changing world view and increasing pressures. At six years of age, the majority of kids (58%) strongly view the world “as a good place”. By twelve years of age, less than half agree (41%). Furthermore, kids begin to feel more stressed out with age—which appears to be partly driven by increased social and school pressures. It is commonly known that social issues like “fitting in” and “mean girls” surface during the tween years. School also becomes more serious. As one older American tween boy (aged 12) told us, “The little kids don’t know how good they have it (in school). They get to play a lot and don’t have much homework”.
Moms are in touch with their kids’ feelings
Similar to kids, most moms view their children as pretty happy. For example, 95% of moms view their kids as happy most of the time. At the same time, they are aware of the pressures faced by many of today’s kids.
- 84% say “Children are growing up too fast today”
- 59% say “Childhood is much harder than when I was a child”
Among U.S. kids, African American kids are the happiest
While one might expect Caucasian children in the U.S. to be the happiest (given their general advantages), this is not the case. In fact, they were the LEAST HAPPY. Instead, African-American kids were the happiest.
This higher level of happiness among African-American children is also shared by their moms, who are more likely to view theirs kids as “happy most of the time”. This positive attitude (for both kids and moms) is consistent with general cultural observations among adults- where African Americans tend to be happier and more optimistic (at least compared to Caucasians). Interestingly, this greater happiness exists despite the fact that African American moms see their children’s lives as more challenging (compared to other moms).
What makes kids happy? Many things….
When we asked kids to name 3 things that made them happy they mentioned a wide array of items- from “teddy bears” to “drawing manga” to “ice cream” to “a warm bath”. However, the most common themes that emerged were:
- Family/family time (mostly parents and siblings, but also grandparents and cousins)
- Playing (e.g., playing outside, playing with others)
- Participating in sports (e.g, swimming, soccer, dancing, skiing)
- Traditional Toys (e.g., board games, Pokémon, dolls, Legos)
- Video games
- Entertainment (e.g, TV, movies, music)
- Food (e.g., candy, pizza, sweets, fancy meals)
- Outings (e.g, cinema, beach, park)
- Competition/Accomplishments (e.g, winning contests, receiving rewards, getting good grades)
Around the globe, the most frequently cited sources of happiness were: #1 family, #2 friends and #3 play. (The one exception was Japan, where playing and video games outweighed family and friends). Beyond these top 3, there were differences in how frequently they were mentioned across countries. For instance, competition and accomplishments were rarely mentioned by U.S. kids, but were frequently mentioned by Chinese kids. In addition, kids in some countries considered other things as major sources of happiness. For example, Japanese kids often reported “the arts” (e.g, drawing, piano, crafts) as making them happy, while U.S. kids frequently mentioned “animals” (e.g., dogs, cats, pets, birds).
Do not assume that kids are unhappy or jaded, as happiness tends to be their normal state. Marketers who focus on the dissatisfied, rebellious child have not only lost touch with the majority sentiment but will find it difficult to connect with kids, tweens, and their parents.
Marketers must be cognizant of global or local events that might impact happiness and stress levels. Rather than dwell on these happenings, brands can win by understanding how they authentically contribute to the general drivers of happiness, including social connection with family and friends, achievement, or control.
Contrary to commonly held beliefs, younger kids do NOT want to be older. While they may desire to have some things that older kids have, they are very happy being their age. Brands should celebrate childhood rather than pushing them to “grow up”. Give kids the opportunity to stay younger longer by encouraging activities that allow them to be (and act) their age.