About a week ago I attended a party. Most of the attendees were parents and the discussion quickly turned to temperaments: whose babies slept through the night; whose little girls wore pants and whose refused anything but dresses; whose kids were cheerful and full of laughter and whose were more thoughtful and solemn. The matter of cheerfulness versus seriousness fascinated these parents because they saw it as something indicative of who the child was, and what he or she would become.
Science confirms that temperament is indeed present from the very first moments of life and can be seen in the different ways that babies react to things in their environments. Some infants startle easily while others seem nonplussed by sudden movements or loud noises; some infants are difficult to soothe once there emotions have been aroused while others are quickly mollified and return to whatever they had been doing before. Some toddlers are very cheery, with the infectious laughter of a gleeful or mischievous tot. Equally contagious is the toothy grin of a 10-year-old after telling a clever joke. Cheerful, laughing kids provide reassurance to parents that life is good for the child.
It's not surprising, then, some parents expressed concern about their children who seemed OK but were more serious, that is, the children who laughed, smiled, and joked less than their more exuberant peers. "It makes me wonder sometimes if something's wrong with him," "I feel like maybe I should try to pry it out of her," "I encourage him to go and have fun with his friends, but he'll never be the life of the party", and "I hope I haven't done something to make her so serious and focused; I guess I haven't set a great example in this area though; I'm not much of a partier myself."
Sure, even young children can occasionally become depressed and retreat into their rooms, sleeping too much or eating too much, fidgeting anxiously, and feeling worthless. But this is uncommon and is quite different from simply being serious, focused, and not silly. More important than any particular characteristic is the child's comfort level with the trait. If a child is on the serious side but seems content, involved with friends or clubs or sports, and well-adjusted otherwise, there's probably nothing to worry about. In fact, we found that such children may be exceptionally healthy.
In The Longevity Project we studied more than 1,500 children as they grew up and passed through their adolescence, adulthoods, and into old age. Being more serious as a child was not a risk factor for earlier mortality -- in fact the reverse was actually true! The very cheerful, optimistic, and humorous kids had shorter life spans, on average, than their more sober counterparts -- in part because they later took poorer care of their health and tended to smoke and drink more, among other things.
So, except in cases where additional warning signs are present, parents of serious children can relax. Not everyone is a Charlie Chaplin or an Adam Sandler and really, think about it -- shouldn't we all be thankful for this?! Some people are simply more high-spirited than others and these differences start early. Scoring a little lower on the humor-meter is not a bad thing; and our surprising research shows that it may actually be good for one's health. Parenting is tough, and there are lots of things to worry about, but this isn't one of them.
Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., author of The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, graduated from Yale and was awarded the National Science Foundation graduate fellowship for his doctoral work at Harvard. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and has been honored with major awards by the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. Dr. Friedman has edited and written a dozen books and 150 scientific articles and has been named a "most-cited psychologist" by the Institute of Scientific Information. His health and longevity research has been featured in publications worldwide. He lives near San Diego, California
Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D., co-author of The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, graduated summa cum laude from California State University, San Bernadino, and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside. Currently, she is a professor of psychology at La Sierra University, where she received the Distinguished Researcher Award and the Anderson Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Martin is also a research psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and a key associate in Professor Friedman's longevity studies.An avid traveler, Dr. Martin climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2005, and recently completed the 151-mile Marathon des Sables across the Moroccan Sahara. She lives in Riverside, California.