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The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

The Childhood Roots of Adult HappinessI’ve borrowed the title of Dr. Ned Hallowell’s book (2002, Ballentine Books) as the title of this article. This is a must-read for all parents.

Of course I love the book partly because his central points are the same ones I’ve been writing about for years, only he presents them with more research support, greater detail, and an innovative model, his 5-step cycle. He even uses one of my favorite analogies, parents as gardeners (also as farmers), in a manner similar to my favorite phrase, “be a gardener, not a sculptor.” He also shares my disdain for the epidemic over focus on grades and “best” colleges as well as the harm of too much structured sports and not enough value given to free play.

But my real reason for saying thanks to Dr. H. (notice the similarity!) is that his book pushes readers to think about their own lives and try to understand what may have contributed to their own happiness and success. It turns out Dr. Hallowell and I share more than similar ideas about what really matters to children.

His personal history is a difficult one. His childhood is marked by a father with mental illness who was hospitalized when he was young, a divorce when he was 6, a mother who drank, and an abusive stepfather who also drank. Add in two learning disabilities and he certainly is qualified to ask how he managed to become a happy, successful adult despite such a seemingly problematic childhood. His openness in sharing the challenges in his life, including his insecurities as a parent, is part of what makes this book special.

As I said, we have much in common. Though my history is not as troubled as his, I have always thought of my childhood as an unhappy time. My mother developed a severe mental illness and was hospitalized for part of my high school years. My father struggled to make a living and I felt ashamed of our run-down house and old used cars. We lived in the middle of nowhere far out on Long Island and I spent a lot of time by myself. I went to a school that was seven miles away and not until my junior year of high school did redistricting bring me within two miles of my school. All those years of long bus rides to school left me with virtually no afterschool social life and, during that time, I was always the only Jewish kid in my class, a situation that often resulted in being bullied by the tough boys who were not good students.

I was the classic late bloomer, and I do mean late. Not until my junior year in college did I begin to resemble the more outgoing, outspoken leader-type of person I was to become as an adult. So how did that transformation happen? What gave me the strength and skills to cope with adverse conditions?

Dr. Hallowell centers on the term “connection” as his core thesis for what matters most in life. Here, again, we are in strong agreement. So I searched back into my life to think about what connections made a difference. It starts with my mother. Despite whatever demons she struggled with (and showed remarkable strength by making a significant recovery), I was unquestionably the proverbial apple of her eye. And I knew it. She believed in me and showed an interest in me that was definitely special. Whatever I was doing was important to her. She even took the time to “enjoy” my first Elvis records! She was not a warm, nurturing mother, but we clearly had a very strong bond that continued until the end of her life about ten years ago.

Connection is so important. It gives one a sense of self-value and a core of good feelings that provides a powerful resource when life presents extra-special challenges. Research shows it to be the primary antidote against adolescent risks of drugs and dropping out. It should be at the center of parents’ values and priorities. In the long run it is clearly much more important to a happy and successful life than children’s achievements (or lack of).

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As important as it is to understand where our strengths come from, it is also important to understand how our personal history influences the way we parent. My father and I did not have a strong connection; in fact, very little connection. Though I was told stories about how he took me for long walks when I was very young, I do not recall our spending time playing together. When family gathered, the men played cards. Yet I have no recollection of him playing cards with me. He was not athletic. There were no games of catch in the yard and no shooting hoops with the makeshift, crooked, backboard that I had attached to a big oak tree. He never came to my games when I played on teams. I know he was working long hours, but to a young kid, the absence is deeply felt.

Ironically, my father turned out to play a significant role in my life, because I was determined that when I had children I would spend a lot of time playing with them, and I did. Through that experience I got to play all the card games and board games that I never played as a child. So I had a “second childhood.” I have never lost touch with that little boy inside who loved to play. I am still sad that my father died when I was a senior in college. I know that as I matured I would have come to understand him better and we probably would have grown closer. I know he loved me.

The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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