I think that the events of childhood are overrated; in fact, I think past history in general is overrated. It has turned out to be difficult to find even small effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no evidence at all of large—to say nothing of determining—effects. Flushed with enthusiasm for the belief that childhood has great impact on adult development, many researchers, starting fifty years ago, looked carefully for support. They expected to find massive evidence for the destructive effects of bad childhood events such as parental death or divorce, physical illness, beatings, neglect, and sexual abuse on the adulthood of the victims. Large-scale surveys of adult mental health and childhood loss were conducted, including prospective studies (there are now several score of these, and they take years and cost a fortune).

Some support appeared, but not much. If, for example, your mother dies before you are eleven, you are somewhat more depressive in adulthood—but not a lot more depressive, and only if you are female, and only in about half the studies. Your father’s dying has no measurable impact. If you are born first, your IQ is higher than your siblings’, but only by an average of one point. If your parents divorce (excluding the studies that don’t even bother with control groups of matched families without divorce), you find slight disruptive effects on later childhood and adolescence. But the problems wane as you grow up, and they are not easily detected in adulthood.

The major traumas of childhood may have some influence on adult personality, but only a barely detectable one. Bad childhood events, in short, do not mandate adult troubles. There is no justification in these studies for blaming your adult depression, anxiety, bad marriage, drug use, sexual problems, unemployment, aggression against your children, alcoholism, or anger on what happened to you as a child.

Most of these studies turned out to be methodologically inadequate anyway. In their enthusiasm for the sway of childhood, they fail to control for genes. Blinded by this bias, it simply did not occur to researchers before 1990 that criminal parents might pass on genes that predispose to crime, and that both the children’s felonies and their tendency to mistreat their own children might stem from nature rather than nurture. There are now studies that do control for genes: one kind looks at the adult personality of identical twins reared apart; another looks at the adult personalities of adopted children and compares them to the personalities of their biological and adoptive parents. All of these studies find large effects of genes on adult personality, and only negligible effects of any childhood events. Identical twins reared apart are much more similar as adults than fraternal twins reared together with regard to authoritarianism, religiosity, job satisfaction, conservatism, anger, depression, intelligence, alcoholism, well-being, and neuroticism, to name only a few traits. In parallel, adopted children are much more similar as adults to their biological parents than they are to their adoptive parents. No childhood events contribute significantly to these characteristics.

This means that the promissory note that Freud and his followers wrote about childhood events determining the course of adult lives is worthless. I stress all this because I believe that many of my readers are unduly embittered about their past, and unduly passive about their future, because they believe that untoward events in their personal history have imprisoned them. This attitude is also the philosophical infrastructure underneath the victimology that has swept America since the glorious beginnings of the civil rights movement, and which threatens to overtake the rugged individualism and sense of individual responsibility that used to be this nation’s hallmark. Merely to know the surprising facts here—that early past events, in fact, exert little or no influence on adult lives—is liberating, and such liberation is the whole point of this section. So if you are among those who view your past as marching you toward an unhappy future, you have ample reason to discard this notion.

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Martin Seligman)- Highlight Loc. 1287-1317 | Added on Wednesday, December 08, 2010, 10:53 AM