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Happy Childhoods

A couple of questions to consider:

What constitutes a happy childhood?

Did you have one?

How many people in the world have happy childhoods?

I was recently talking to someone who believes that he had an unequivocally happy childhood and that, moreover, “most people” have a happy childhood.

I said I probably didn’t. That is, I was happy some of the time, and I was certainly lucky compared to many millions of people on earth. But, seriously and honestly, I couldn’t say my childhood was happy overall. My household was too tense, too many people were mad or miserable at any particular time, and I was usually anxiously observant, trying to predict the next explosion or worrying about the last one.

Furthermore, I believe that since 80% of the world’s population earns less than $10 a day, most of the children of the world are not having a happy childhood. That is, they’re way worse off than I was, in that they’re likely hungry and thirsty a lot of the time and have little access to education and other advantages in life.  About half the world’s population lives in what is called “absolute poverty,” on less than $2.50 a day. (These dollar amounts, by the way, refer to buying power. You can’t use that “But it buys so much more in their country” argument.)

I know that people who are poor can have happy lives. That is, while doing without material goods, they can enjoy their families and their work. But lacking food, water, healthcare, shelter, and meaningful work precludes happiness. Moreover, living in dire poverty frequently also implies violence and humiliation and danger.

My happy childhood guy disagreed. While compassionate toward people suffering from malnutrition, war, and extreme poverty, he stuck to his argument that “most people” are happy and had a happy childhood.

I know it’s a stupid argument, because who can even define “happy”? I still want to know what you think, either about your own childhood or everybody else’s. Let me know.


  1. Mary wrote:

    Kathy, what an interesting post…an excellent question and an interesting conversation. And I would like to add another question: when, if ever, does it stop mattering if you had an ‘unhappy’ childhood? Do the effects ever ‘wear off?’ Much more to say on this topic but too long for this format. I think the ‘happy’s’ and the ‘unhappy’s’ see the world differently….is this just to obvious to say?

    Monday, January 6, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  2. Mary wrote:

    p.s. you have to read: Erica Simone’s book on children in a rural Cambodian orphanage….even one profile: Weed, age 7, happy to have been brought to the orphanage….

    Monday, January 6, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Jamie wrote:

    For me, happiness is not feeling so anxious that I am going to explode, so I guess that my childhood and most of my adulthood have been happy.

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 1:20 am | Permalink
  4. Anne Steel wrote:

    Just read somewhere, “the phrase dysfunctional family is redundant.”

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Jamie wrote:

    My favorite cartoon (okay, my second really) is of a great hall over which is a banner that reads “adult children of functional families’ convention.” There is one attendee!

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Kathy wrote:

    Ok. But your comments raise another question. Does a dysfunctional family (i.e., normally so) preclude a happy childhood?

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  7. Kathy wrote:

    Mary–I think it always matters what kind of childhood you had, but I don’t think it determines your future happiness. I think you can overcome many past misfortunes, even learn from them to make your life better.

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Bill wrote:

    I’m happy now for the childhood I had. More than I was then, when I wrongly (I’ve learned)assumed the other kids had a warmer situation.

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  9. Sarah Becker wrote:

    You got it–defining “happy” is the real question. Is it the same as satisfied, fulfilled, fully functioning? And is it a momentary feeling, or a long-term state? It’s harder for me to remember the happy moments–the pain, embarrassment, and loneliness stand out more in my memory. But music, books, and friends were often there for solace even in the difficult years.

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  10. Kathy wrote:

    Music, books, and friends–that’s a good list.

    Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  11. Joanne wrote:

    I would say that I was very very lucky to have a happy childhood. What could be better than playing amid the rolling hills of a small campus with my best friend. I had loving, not hovering, parents; plenty of fresh corn on the cob and raspberries from the garden, and such safety and security we didn’t even have a key to our house. I lived in ignorant bliss of the wide world and all its troubles, and that may not be a good thing but I was happy.

    Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink
  12. Lisa Marin wrote:

    Is it really all one or the other? All happy or all not-happy? I have many memories of happy times, and just as many of bad, difficult times. Maybe those who characterize their childhoods as unhappy are forgetting the bright moments, and vice versa? (And is the forgetting by choice? Are you an “optimist” who chooses to concentrate on the good, or a “pessimist” who focuses on the darker side?) It all brings to mind a recent NYT article about a child who lives in a shelter that crawls with roaches, mold, and sexual predators, and where her infant sibling is kept warm by a hand-held hair dryer. But she somehow finds joy in the sight of the Empire State Building reaching up into the sky. Is she happy or sad?

    Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  13. Kathy wrote:

    A couple of other questions arise. Is it good to be so blissful that you are ignorant of the wide world and all its troubles? (I’m not saying this, but you suggest its possibility, Joanne.) I also wonder if you feel nostalgic (painfully so) about the happiness of your childhood. Maybe the rest of life never measures up?

    Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  14. Kathy wrote:

    True, nobody’s all happy, and rarely is anyone all not-happy. I had happiness in my childhood. But there are people who say unequivocally, like Joanne, that they had a happy childhood. I can’t say that, and don’t believe it’s because I’m generally a pessimist. I’m happier as an adult than I was as a child–maybe that’s a useful criterion.

    Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

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