Economics serving society

What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-Course Model of Wellbeing

Andrew E. Clark, Richard Layard, Francesca Cornaglia, Nattavudh Powdthavee et James Vernoit

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What factors make for satisfied adults? Research published recently in the Economic Journal challenges the basic assumption of educational policy: that academic achievement matters more than anything else.
The work by Andrew Clark, Richard Layard, Francesca Cornaglia, Nick Powdthavee and James Vernoit investigated which dimensions of children’s development up to age 16 best predicted whether the resulting adults are satisfied with their lives. They find that the most important factor is the emotional health of the child; next the child’s behaviour; and least important the academic achievements of the child.
The aim of this work was to provide policy-makers with a completely new perspective on which factors contribute most to a satisfying life. To do so the research team analysed data on around 9,000 members of the 1970 UK birth cohort who were followed from birth up to the age of 34. As adults they were asked how satisfied they are with their lives. The study first examined which factors in childhood best predicted this outcome. But it then traced how these factors had their impact.
Once someone is an adult, their enjoyment of life depends on many things – income, employment, educational achievement, criminal conduct or otherwise, family life and mental and physical health. Many people assume that income is the most important of these, but in fact it is far less important than emotional health. Income only explains about 1% of the variation in life satisfaction among people in the UK – one sixth of the fraction explained by emotional health. So while intellectual development is the strongest predictor of income, it is not the strongest predictor of life satisfaction.
Moreover, emotional health helps children to learn and thus makes its own contribution to economic success. It is not true that adult outcomes are entirely determined by family background and very early life experiences. While some outcomes (like education) are more determined by family background than are others (such as life satisfaction or income), the older childhood experiences of individuals continue to contribute to their adult life satisfaction. As such, policy interventions at any age can help influence adult well-being.
Original title of the academic article : “What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-Course Model of Wellbeing”
Published in : The Economic Journal - Vol 124, Issue 580, pages F720–F738, November 2014
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