[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 22-Aug-2011
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Contact: Daniel Fowler
pubinfo@asanet.org
202-527-7885
American Sociological Association

Happiness can deter crime, a new study finds

LAS VEGAS — Happy adolescents report less involvement in crime and drug use than other youth, a new University of California-Davis study finds.

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, and will be presented at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

"Our results suggest that the emphasis placed on happiness and well-being by positive psychologists and others is warranted," McCarthy said. "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 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.

They found that about 29 percent of the youth surveyed reported having committed at least one criminal offense, and 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.

Consequences of happiness are rarely examined by sociologists, and no previous studies have investigated its association with juvenile crime, the authors said.

Many explanations of adolescents' decisions about crime focus either on reflective thought that discourages offending, or negative emotions—such as anger or rage—that contribute to it.

McCarthy and Casey argue that positive emotions also have a role. "We 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," they write in their study.

Their research found that 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.

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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About the American Sociological Association

The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.

The paper, "Get Happy! Positive Emotion, Depression, and Juvenile Crime," will be presented on Monday, Aug. 22, at 10:30 a.m. PDT in Caesars Palace Las Vegas, at the American Sociological Association's 106th Annual Meeting.

To obtain a copy of the paper; for more information on other ASA presentations; or for assistance reaching the study's authors, members of the media can contact Daniel Fowler at pubinfo@asanet.org or (202) 527-7885. During the Annual Meeting (Aug. 20-23), ASA's Public Information Office staff can be reached in the press room, located in the Sorrento Room of Caesars Palace, at (702) 866-1916 or (914) 450-4557 (cell).

For more information about the study, members of the media can also contact Karen Nikos, UC-Davis News Service, at kmnikos@ucdavis.edu or (530) 752-6101.



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