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InPsych 2016 | Vol 38

February | Issue 1

Psychology in current issues

What leads to a happy, healthy and productive life? Looking back over a 32-year longitudinal study and forward to future generations

Psychology tends to focus on things that can, and sometimes do, go wrong in people’s lives. In the Australian Temperament Project (ATP), a 32-year longitudinal study, we have developed an equal interest in understanding what leads to positive development, health and wellbeing. Begun in 1983 with a representative cohort of almost 2500 Victorian infants, the ATP has collected detailed information on them and their families in 16 waves of data collection (see Vassallo & Sanson, 2013). As our participants grew into adulthood, we have explored the nature, predictors and consequences of positive development.

This article summarises some of the higher-level learnings from the ATP before turning to our work on positive development and reflecting on the significance of these findings both now and in the future.

The major domains assessed in the ATP from infancy to adulthood include:

  • Temperament (particularly individual differences in emotional reactivity, sociability versus social withdrawal, and self-regulation)
  • Child and adolescent health, behavioural and emotional problems (e.g. anxiety, antisocial behaviour, eating problems, risky driving)
  • School adjustment and achievement
  • Social competence and civic mindedness
  • Family functioning and family relationships
  • Peer relationships
  • Positive development

Overall high-level learnings (drawn from findings reported in well over 150 papers, see www.aifs.gov.au/atp) include the following:

  • Temperament matters – aspects of temperament are predictive of almost all the emotional, behavioural and educational outcomes we have examined. That said, temperament is just one predictor among many, with influences discernible from each level of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of development.
  • Early origins – for almost all outcomes, influences from early in life can be detected, but early life does not set the path of development in stone. Some children develop problems at later ages, and many children who appear at high risk in childhood exhibit resilience and recovery.
  • Most do well – as expected for a representative sample, most ATP participants have developed well, but at any one time-point approximately 25% exhibit significant adjustment difficulties of some sort. Given Australia’s wealth, one could argue that 25% is far too high.
  • Complex pathways – we have found more than one developmental pathway (varying in timing and predictors) to each of the outcomes we have examined, and each pathway involves multiple influences from each level of the ecology of the child’s life. This has led us to support multimodal preventive interventions.
  • Knowledge exchange requires a partnership approach between research, policy and practice – communicating and implementing research findings in policy and practice is a complex task, with the most important ingredient being respectful collaborative partnerships across sectors.

Turning to our work on positive development when our participants were approaching adulthood, a first question related to the nature of positive development. We developed a broad framework of positive development (see text box 1 below) incorporating aspects of many theoretical models such as developmental assets, social capital theory, and developmental psychopathology. Importantly, it includes both hedonia, the Platonic notion that ‘the good life’ is a happy or pleasurable life, as well as eudaimonia, the Aristotelian view that ‘the good life’ is a moral life – structured by ‘virtues’ of kindness, trust, loyalty, honesty and so forth. We believe both are essential aspects of wellbeing.

Five factor model of positive development
  • Social competence, encompassing domains such as empathy, assertiveness, responsibility, and self-control, helps individuals to meet everyday functional demands, be responsible for themselves and others, and interact effectively in social relationships.
  • Life satisfaction reflects a sense of contentment and feelings of congruency between wants or needs and accomplishments or resources.
  • Civic action and engagement refers to a person’s willingness to take up the role of a citizen and concern for the wellbeing of others, essential for a successful democratic society.
  • Trust and tolerance of others (including those with different cultural backgrounds) is also central to political socialisation, and involves concern about fairness and equity.
  • Trust of authorities and organisations such as the police and courts is an important aspect of social capital.

Structural equation modeling has shown this model to be a valid representation, with all five components loading on an overall positive development second-order factor. The model holds up well for each age from late adolescence through the 20s. We have also shown that positive development is not simply the absence of psychopathology - rather these are independent but related constructs.

Indicating the value of promoting a eudaimonic outlook, we have shown that eudaimonia in adolescence (reflected in behaviours aimed at benefiting other people or the community, driven by moral values of kindness, generosity, trust and care) predicts better emotional health (emotional competencies, less anxiety and depression) in young adulthood.

Using our databank from infancy onwards, we found four major factors in childhood and early adolescence predicted later positive development:

  • Self-regulation has some roots in temperament but also develops with maturation, and can be nurtured through responsive parenting and teaching even for children with predispositions to be reactive or under-controlled.
  • Relationships with parents, peers and teachers were all important predictors, reflecting the critical importance of maintaining positive and supportive relationships even when this is challenging.
  • School (both primary and secondary) as a place of belonging and feeling valued was important for later positive development.
  • Being a contributing member of their community, through such activities as volunteering, youth group membership and close connections with neighbours, was also predictive.

These have important implications for psychologists working with children and young people now, but they are based on a cohort that was born in the early 1980s. The ATP recently embarked on the exciting ‘ATP Generation 3 Study’, following the children of the participants on whom we have data since infancy. So a critically important question: what will be different in the lives of ATP Generation 3 compared to their parents (Generation 2)?

Supporting positive development in the future

Crystal-ball gazing is always a fraught exercise, but it is safe to assume that the same developmental principles will underlie positive development now and in the future – in other words, children will continue to develop in an ecological context, with personal attributes and relationships with family and community critical to their wellbeing. But that ecological context will change. We already know about some of these changes, such as the trend for children to be born to older parents, have fewer siblings, grow up in more diverse family structures, and in a more populated world with less work security and possible major economic upheavals.

But, of the many challenges facing the next generation, the most wide-ranging and potentially catastrophic is climate change. Clayton, Manning and Hodge (2014) have noted the diverse and serious psychological impacts of climate change on human wellbeing if the planet warms by as little as 1.5 degrees. As President Obama (2015) has said, “We're the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it”. Climate change is described by the Pope in his Encyclical (2015) as the dominant moral and social crisis of our time: “the problem is not one of how well our children and grandchildren will fare in the future, but whether civilization as we know it can be extended beyond the next 100 years”.

Even in the best scenarios, climate change will create adverse changes in our environment and lifestyles, and the next generation will need to live differently – in a low-carbon world. This has huge implications for our consumer-driven, growth-oriented economy, for how we live, travel and work.

How, then, do we go about preparing the next generation for their likely ecological context? Clearly, the best thing the current generation can do for them is to prevent catastrophic climate change. As psychologists there are many ways, from the personal to the political, in which we can contribute to this. The APS Public Interest Team has produced an excellent range of resources to help psychologists tackle climate change and support others to do so (see www.psychology.org.au/public-interest/environment).

Even if the worst climate change is avoided, the next generation will need to be prepared to adapt to faster and more wide-ranging change than we have seen before. This suggests that the collective values and attributes they will need to survive will include highly developed capacities for adaptability, flexibility and resilience, and excellent problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. Further, the Pope’s Encyclical noted the need to “reorient our attitudes toward nature and, thereby, toward ourselves”, referring to non-negotiable human values - ‘intrinsic’ or ‘bigger-than-self’ values. Thus, equally if not more important will be attributes such as empathy and compassion; tolerance and acceptance; skills for cooperation and shared action; beliefs in equality, justice and environmental protection; and strong community orientation and engagement.

These attributes resonate strongly with the ATP conceptualisation of positive development, but will be even more vital in the future. As psychologists concerned about the development of the next generation, there are many ways we can encourage the development of these attributes – amongst these might be: encouraging volunteering, community engagement and a deep connection with nature among young people; helping young people develop a sense of individual and group efficacy to develop a sense of empowerment; modeling responsible political action; and adopting a eudaimonic perspective that values and promotes ‘intrinsic’ attributes as much as intellectual and occupational success in our young people.

Acknowledgements: This article is based on my Fellows Address at the 50th APS annual conference on the Gold Coast in September 2015. I gratefully acknowledge my many collaborators in the Australian Temperament Project and its loyal participants over 30 years. The ATP is currently a collaboration between Deakin University, Melbourne University, the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital.

The author can be contacted at annas@unimelb.edu.au


For all papers on the ATP, see aifs.gov.au/atp. Of particular relevance to this paper are:

  • O’Connor, M., Sanson, A., Toumbourou, J., Hawkins, M. T., Letcher, P., Williams, P., & Olsson, C. (2016) Positive development and resilience in early adulthood. In J. Arnett (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of emerging adulthood (pp. 601-614). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Vassallo, S. & Sanson, A. (2013). The Australian Temperament Project: The First 30 Years. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • O'Connor, M., Sanson, A., Toumbourou, J. W., Norrish, J., & Olsson, C. (in press, 2016). Does positive mental health in adolescence longitudinally predict healthy transitions in young adulthood? Journal of Happiness Studies.
  • Hallam, W. T., Olsson, C. A., O’Connor, M., Hawkins, M., Toumbourou, J. W., Bowes, G., McGee, R. & Sanson, A. (2014). Association between adolescent eudaimonic behaviours and emotional competence in young adulthood. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15, 1165-1177.
  • Hawkins, M. T., Villagonzalo, K., Sanson, A. V., Toumbourou, J. W., Letcher, P., & Olsson, C. (2012). Associations between positive development in late adolescence and social, health, and behavioral outcomes in young adulthood. Journal of Adult Development, 19(2), 88-99.
  • O'Connor, M., Sanson, A., Hawkins, M., Olsson, C., Frydenberg, E., Toumbourou, J., & Letcher, P. (2012). The relationship between positive development and psychopathology during the transition to adulthood: A person-centred approach. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 701-712
  • O'Connor, M., Sanson, A., Hawkins, M., Letcher, P., Toumbourou, J., Smart, D., … Olsson, C. A. (2011). Predictors of positive development in emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 860-874.
  • Hawkins, M. T., Letcher, P., Sanson, A., O'Connor, M., Toumbourou, J., & Olsson, C. (2011). Stability and change in positive development during young adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(11), 1436-1452.
  • O'Connor, M., Sanson, A., Hawkins, M., Toumbourou, J., Letcher, P., & Frydenberg, E. (2011). Differentiating three conceptualisations of the relationship between positive development and psychopathology during the transition to adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 34, 475–484.
  • O'Connor, M., Sanson, A., & Frydenberg, E. (2011). The relationship between positive development during the transition to adulthood and temperament, personality, and educational outcomes. In E. Frydenberg & G. Reevy (Eds.), Personality, stress, and coping: Implications for education (Vol. VI) (pp 111-130). North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, Inc.
  • Hawkins, M. T., Letcher, P., Sanson, A., Smart, D., & Toumbourou, J. (2009). Positive development in emerging adulthood. Australian Journal of Psychology, 61(2), 89-99.
  • Prior, M., Sanson, A., Smart, D., & Oberklaid, F. (2000). Pathways from infancy to adolescence: Australian Temperament Project 1983-2000. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Non-ATP references:

  • Allen, P., French, C., Hopkinson, L., & James, P. (2015) Zero carbon - Making it happen: Initial findings. UK: Centre for Alternative Technology.
  • Franciscus, P. (2015). ‘Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home. Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
  • Obama, B. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/WhiteHouse/videos/10153667930879238/
  • Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., & Hodge C. (2014). Beyond storms & droughts: The psychological impacts of climate change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.
  • Sanson, A. & Stanley, F. (2010) Improving the wellbeing of Australian children and youth: The importance of bridging the know–do gap. In Bammer, G., Michaux, A, & Sanson, A. (Eds.), Bridging the ‘know-do’ gap: Knowledge brokering to improve child wellbeing (pp. 3-17). Canberra: ANU E-Press.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on February 2016. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.