Claim: Happiness can discourage teen crime

People have always wondered what society can do to discourage criminal activity. Well, it turns out that all you have to do to fight crime is spread happiness.

Yes, a new study from UC Davis claims that happy teenagers are less involved in crime and drug use compared to their unhappy peers.


The research 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.


“Our results suggest 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.”

Data from 1995 and 1996 was used by the authors; it was taken from almost 15,000 seventh- to ninth-grade students. Older data was sourced from the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which was the largest survey of adolescents ever conducted.

They discovered that around 29 percent of the students surveyed admitted to committing at least one crime, and 18 percent claimed to have used at least one illegal drug. The researchers then linked these self-reports to self-assessments of emotional health.

The consequences of happiness aren’t typically looked at by sociologists, and no prior studies have examined its association with juvenile crime, the authors said.

Numerous reasons for adolescents’ choices related to crime seem to center on either reflective thought that discourages offending, or negative emotions – like anger or rage – that contribute to it.

McCarthy and Casey also believe positive emotions a definite 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 the study.

To be sure, their research indicated that happier teen students were less likely to report involvement with criminal activity or drugs. In contrast, adolescents with slight, or nonclinical, depression had much higher odds of being a part of such activities.

The study also proposes that changes in emotions over time actually do matter.


Adolescents who experienced a drop in their level of happiness or an increase in the strength of their depression over a one-year span had larger odds of participating in crime and using drugs.


Most teenagers go through cycles of happiness and depression, and the study seem to illustrate that the intensity of such emotions is also important. For example, the chance of drug use was substantially lower for youth who admitted that they were happy more than they were sad, and it was much higher for those who said they felt depressed more than they were happy.