Home All “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness” – A talk by Edward Hallowell, MD

“The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness” – A talk by Edward Hallowell, MD

written by Aren Cohen 12 May 2007

Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.

Edward HallowellLast night I went to hear a child psychiatrist named Edward M. Hallowell give a talk on his new book “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness.  Dr. Hallowell has a practice and center in Sudbury, MA that takes a strengths-based approach to treating children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Worry/Anxiety and Child Learning Disabilities.  Despite working with a clinical population, Dr. Hallowell is a positive psychologist.  (Well, really he is a positive psychiatrist, but that’s just as good!)  In his talk he talked about how he is in the business of helping people “unwrap their gifts.”  He explained that he often uses a metaphor with kids when explaining ADD.  “You have a Ferrari brain; a really terrific and speedy brain,” he said, “the only thing is that you have Chevy brakes.  We have to work on improving the brakes.”

childhood rootsThe subject of last night’s talk was about how to create happy kids who become happy adults.  Dr.  Hallowell explained that there are five very simple and easy steps to creating happy kids who are successful and flourishing.  These five steps are:

  1. CONNECT:  create layers of social connections for kids, starting at home, then at school and in the neighborhood.
  2. PLAY:  allow kids to use their creativity to explore, create and ask questions.  Children need to have their humor and, more importantly, their imaginations, fostered and supported.
  3. PRACTICE:  once children have found an area to explore, they must learn the discipline from practicing and wanting to do well at the things that interest them.
  4. ACHIEVE MASTERY:  from practice children learn that they want to master something.  Mastery is a powerful motivator that teaches confidence and a sense of “getting hooked on life.”
  5. RECOGNITION:  once a child has achieved mastery, it takes social recognition to close the loop again to connections.  Also, recognition teaches a child that they are part of a larger social group, so it teaches a sense of a social morality of being “part of something.”

For us positive psychologists, this just makes plain good sense.  As I listened to Dr. Hallowell, I thought about Chris Peterson’s mantra that “Other People Matter.”  Additionally, I thought about Carol Dweck’s work on praise, and that praise is empty unless you can point to the thing where a person has been practicing and achieving mastery.

Dr. Hallowell pointed out that out of this system of five steps, children learn passion, enthusiasm, discipline, the circumstances that create laughter and play, and a sense that they don’t ever have to give up.  As I sat in the audience I thought about hope and optimism.  I wanted to ask the question, “Kids need hope and optimism.  How does this system teach those two skills?”  Yet, at the same time, I had a feeling that maybe the answer to my question is sort of obvious.  Using C. R. Synder’s definition of hope, these steps teach children pathway and agency thinking, and practice and mastery teach children how to set goals for themselves that will help establish hope.

Another important message Dr. Hallowell addressed was that it was important not to make kids do too much, and to let them try to do things on their own.  So many parents fear what will happen if a child fails at something.  The important thing about the five steps is that a child has to accomplish those five steps on some things, but not all things.  We are not all successes at everything we do.  It is okay to fail at some things.  Maybe part of being a positive psychologist, and being strengths-based, is giving ourselves permission to be “bad” at something.  Try though I might, I will never be a concert pianist, and I am proud to admit that I can live with that.

All in all, I would say Dr. Hallowell’s five steps were fascinating and inspiring.  It is delightful to find clinicians outside of the MAPP family who are pioneering the strengths-based approach of positive psychology.  As both the Class of 2006 and the Class of 2007 garner recognition for our academic accomplishments on Sunday, it is wonderful to see ways that what we have learned are being applied in the world.


Hallowell, E. (2003). The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy. New York: Ballantine Books.

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Caroline Miller 12 May 2007 - 9:04 pm

Thank you for reporting on this talk! I love Ned Hallowell’s work, and I love your synopsis of his talk. I found myself thinking about your question about hope and optimism, and I think one missing link in his talk was about role modeling. Kids have to have appropriate role models so that they can develop goals, have grit, create mastery experiences, and learn how to disengage from unworkable goals. In fact, your point about not being great at everything reminds me of something that Barbara Kerr said at the Positive Psych conference in the fall about the traits of happy families. She said that in flourishing families, there appear to be lots of stories about how people had bad things happen, but that someone else’s kindness or generosity helped them to right the ship and survive a failure or setback. So resilient children can’t just experience failure and learn from it, they also have to hear stories about how people they know have failed and gotten back on their feet to live another day. Nothing but success is a bad habit to have!

Great post — thanks!

Senia Maymin 14 May 2007 - 2:59 am

Aren, what an interesting discussion about bringing up healthy-minded kids. The first thing I thought was, “Why shouldn’t the same five steps be applied to adults?” 🙂 No seriously, even the PLAY step because I am such a big proponent of games in business (see here and here).

And a question for you Aren … I’m reading this book by Edward Deci: Why We Do What We Do. He somewhat takes to task the last point about recognition. Deci’s argument is that reward and punishment do work, but they affect a person’s external motivation as opposed to internal motivation, and a person won’t become the best she can be unless her internal motivation can overrule the external motivation.

Finally, both CONNECT and RECOGNITION seem designed to bring meaning into the children’s lives. There’s an interesting discussion of meaning at work on Penelope Trunk’s site today.

Caroline, that seems so reasonable to me – to model bouncing back from failure. Nice idea. Again, it seems it would be useful for children as well as adults – adults often seek out someone who’s gone through what they are going through.

Greg Gilbert 18 May 2007 - 1:01 pm

Great article. I am thrilled to see that the AD/HD community and strengths community are connecting. I am an adult with AD/HD and am greatly encouraged by what Ed Hallowell has written (Delivered from Distraction) and applied it to my own life.

One helpful tool for kids is the Gallup StrengthsExplorer assessment. It is an on-line tool that designed for 10-14 year-olds. It reports their top 3 talent themes and action items for the kids and the adults. My daughter took this in 2006 and we are intentionally using it to find the right activities for her; the ones that are a natural fit and she enjoys.

Thanks for listening.

Iris Marie Bloom 29 May 2007 - 2:07 pm

Aren, I enjoyed this article thoroughly. I am a fan of both your insightful thinking and of Ned Hallowell. His Ferrarri/Chevy analogy specific to ADHD is spot on, but his principles for raising healthy young people are generalizable. I agree that we can use these principles for adults also — it’s never too late. I would only add that the “recognition” could be as simple as a verbal affirmation acknowledging that someone did the right thing or did something well; benefitted others, avoided disaster, whatever the appropriate range of recognition might be. The recognition may even be nonverbal, as simple as a nod when (an example close to my heart) the novice sailor has kept us on course or trimmed the headsail just right! All these are indications of being part of a team, part of something larger than the self… yet without disorienting or unnecessary, exaggerated hoopla. Again, thanks Aren!

Life Happiness 5 February 2008 - 9:58 pm

I agree with Dr, Hallowell steps, however one does not need to have strong childhood foundations to grow up to become a happy adult. Also a happy childhood does not mean a happy adulthood. A study related to positive psychology, by Med Yones, from International Institute of Management claims that adults and children can be programmed or reprogrammed to lead happy lives. “Positive thinking is the effect not the cause. Positive thinking or affirmations may or may not lead to change and if they do they, are limited to temporary mood improvement. Only a change in the lifestyle will lead to a lasting change in your emotional health. The solution he recommends is to adopt the following transformation system:

1. Re-examine your negative conditioning and programming (outlook, attitudes, values, associations, conclusions and belief system)

2. Drop limiting values and associations and learn new positive ones

3. Build a sustainable personal development system (mental, physical and social)

4. Lead a new lifestyle to enforce your learning and the transformation of your personality and your life

The key, I think is continuous practice in childhood and adulthood.”

Anubel 8 April 2008 - 7:20 am

this was a great article.We can avoid a lot of crimes and problems in life by following the steps dr hallowell suggested..

Carolynne 6 October 2008 - 12:31 pm

I am interested in contacting Dr. Hallowell in regards to speaking at our school. Do you have his contact information?
Thank you,

Sherri Fisher 6 October 2008 - 7:26 pm

The AD/HD community is not new to the idea of strengths. My professional library (representing over 25 years in the field) contains any number of books which entreat the reader to identify and appreciate the person with LD/ADD/ADHD. The terminology “strengths” is new in its current use, and the access to validated at home tests is, too. (VIA, CSF and many others much less well studied.)

The application of empirical data allows us to both appreciate and measure. In the past this has been the province of researchers and doctors with Connors Scales, CPTs, PET scanners and more recently, fMRIs. However, there have always been teachers who see past what does not, perhaps, work well in school (hunters in a farmers world, explorers v. map makers) but is tailor-made for a spot in the real world. For them, many students and former students are full of gratitude!!


Editor S.M. 13 November 2009 - 4:09 pm


What a wonderful article. I’m listening to Ned Hallowell speak right now.

I’m really intrigued by the analogy of being a Ferrari with baby breaks.
And then Ned adds: “And I’m a breaks specialist.”

He says just now that the opposite sides of the three components of ADD are:
* Distractability – If you’ve never distracted, you have total “Lack of Curiosity”
* Impulsivity – If you don’t have any, you may have a huge “Lack of Creativity”
* Hyperactivity – If you’ve never felt that way, you may have large “Lack of Energy”

He’s really interesting to listen to.

I wonder how he teaches kids to apply the breaks.



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