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Does Infant Happiness Forecast Adult Life Satisfaction? Examining Subjective Well-Being in the First Quarter Century of Life

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Abstract

Few empirical studies have focused on young children’s happiness (high positive affect and low negative affect) and specifically whether it is related to adult well-being. Adult well-being indices (e.g., life satisfaction, workplace hope, and optimism) may have developmental roots in early affect. In the 28-year Fullerton Longitudinal Study (N = 129) we examined positive affect and negative affect as independent constructs during infancy (parent report) and adolescence (self-report) to determine their relationship to global adult life satisfaction (self-report). In addition, we tested the generalizability of the effects of positive and negative affect in relation to domain-specific adult well-being constructs (i.e., workplace hope and optimism), which hold utility for concurrent and prospective well-being. Structural equation modeling revealed that positive affect during infancy and adolescence each uniquely predicted adult life satisfaction. In a separate model for a subsample of employed adults, infant positive affect showed significant positive associations with workplace hope and optimism. Neither infant nor adolescent negative affect predicted any adult well-being outcomes. Our results highlight the need for more developmental studies examining the relationship between children’s positive and negative affect and long-term well-being.

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Notes

  1. Items used to examine the construct validity of our measures are available upon request from the first author.

  2. We also ran analyses that treated the outcomes as latent variables and we found comparable results to those presented here.

  3. The final models were also estimated with gender and SES serving as covariates predicting each endogenous variable. Because inclusion of these covariates did not change the pattern of results, we report findings for the parsimonious final models that excluded these variables.

  4. When we tested the association between parent reports of both infant positive affect and adolescent positive affect, we found a statistically significant link. The data set did not contain parent reports for adolescent negative affect at this age. While the positive affect finding would lend partial support the notion of continuity in affect over time, adolescents’ reports of their own well-being are likely to more accurately reflect their internal states (cf. Sourander et al. 1999), as compared with parent reports of adolescent affect. Parent reports of adolescent positive and negative affect did not predict any of our adult outcomes. Further, these associations may reflect shared method variance rather than true covariation between infant and adolescent affect.

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Acknowledgments

Portions of this research were supported by grants from the Spencer Foundation, Thrasher Research Fund, California State University, Fullerton and Northridge, and Kravis Leadership Institute. Gratitude is extended to the participants and families of the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, and to Katie Nelson, Laura Wray-Lake, Jessica Borelli, Pam Oliver, Adele Gottfried, Diana Guerin, Ronald Riggio, Rebecca Reichard, Jeanne Nakamura and Binghuang A. Wang, for their assistance on this manuscript.

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Coffey, J.K., Warren, M.T. & Gottfried, A.W. Does Infant Happiness Forecast Adult Life Satisfaction? Examining Subjective Well-Being in the First Quarter Century of Life. J Happiness Stud 16, 1401–1421 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-014-9556-x

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