Happiness Can Deter Crime

Happy youths may be better equipped to make decisions

Happy adolescents report less involvement in crime and drug use than other youth, a new UC Davis study finds. “In addition to their other benefits, programs and policies that increase childhood and adolescent happiness may have a notable effect on deterring nonviolent crime and drug use.

The paper, “Get Happy! Positive Emotion, Depression and Juvenile Crime,” is co-authored by Bill McCarthy, a UC Davis sociology professor, and Teresa Casey, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis. “Our results suggest that the emphasis placed on happiness and well-being by positive psychologists and others is warranted,” McCarthy said. 

The authors used 1995 and 1996 data from nearly 15,000 seventh- to ninth-grade students in the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the largest, most comprehensive survey of adolescents ever undertaken.

  • 29 percent of the youth surveyed reported having committed at least one criminal offense
  • 18 percent said that they had used at least one illegal drug

The researchers then correlated these reports with self-assessments of emotional well-being. Happier adolescents were less likely to report involvement in crime or drug use. Adolescents with minor, or nonclinical, depression had significantly higher odds of engaging in such activities.

McCarthy and Casey hypothesize that, “the benefits of happiness — from strong bonds with others, a positive self-image and the development of socially valued cognitive and behavioral skills — reinforce a decision-making approach that is informed by positive emotions.”

The study also found that changes in emotions over time matter.

Adolescents who experienced a decrease in their level of happiness or an increase in the degree of their depression over a one-year period had higher odds of being involved in crime and of using drugs.

Most adolescents experience both happiness and depression, and the study finds that the relative intensity of these emotions is also important. The odds of drug use were notably lower for youth who reported that they were more often happy than depressed, and were substantially higher for those who indicated that they were more depressed than happy. 

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Category: Psych

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