2 June 2008

When Happiness Is A Disadvantage

by Kate Melville

Psychologists at the University of Virginia and the University of Plymouth in the UK have conducted experimental research that contrasts with the belief that happy children are the best learners. The findings, in the journal Developmental Science, indicate that where attention to detail is required, happy children may be at a disadvantage.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments with different child age groups who had happy or sad moods induced with the aid of music and movie video clips. The children were then asked to undertake a task that required attention to detail - to observe a detailed image such as a house and a simple shape such as a triangle, and then locate the shape within the larger picture. The findings in each experiment with both music and video clips were conclusive, say the researchers, with the children induced to feel a sad or neutral mood performing the task better than those induced to feel a happy state of mind.

"Happiness indicates that things are going well, which leads to a global, top-down style of information processing. Sadness indicates that something is amiss, triggering detail-orientated, analytical processing," contends the University of Plymouth's Simone Schnall. "However, it is important to emphasize that existing research shows there are contexts in which a positive mood is beneficial for a child, such as when a task calls for creative thinking. But this particular research demonstrates that when attention to detail is required, it may do more harm than good."

Co-researcher Vikram Jaswal, from the University of Virginia, added that the findings contradict conventional wisdom that happiness always leads to optimal outcomes. "The good feeling that accompanies happiness comes at a hidden cost. It leads to a particular style of thinking that is suited for some types of situations, but not others."

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Source: University of Virginia