Want to Raise Happy, Healthy, Entrepreneurial Kids? Don’t Teach Them the World Is a Bad Place

Startups fail at an alarming rate; according to one study, 90 percent of startups fail within the first five years. Clearly the startup world is a bad place, and accepting that fact — going in with eyes wide open — should be good for small business owners.

As well as for the people they employ.

A 2019 study published in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice found that optimism and excitement are contagious. When a founder is enthusiastic, employee commitment and excitement increase. Even “previously disengaged” employees show increases in effort, creativity, and flexibility. 

Intuitively, that makes sense.

So why do so many parents feel that making sure their children understand just how dangerous the world can be is good for them? (Research shows nine out of ten parents feel seeing the world as “safe” to “very safe” is not best for their children.)

The urge is clearly protective; recognizing physical threat helps us avoid physical threat. Recognizing inherent unfairness helps us avoid situations where we might be treated poorly. Knowing is good for us.

According to a recent study published in Journal of Positive Psychology, kids taught that (as the study title puts it) “the world is a bad place” tend to suffer for it.

As the researchers write:

Those with more negative primals (beliefs about the world’s basic character) were less healthy, suffered more frequent negative emotional states, were more likely depressed, were more likely to have attempted suicide, were much less satisfied with their lives, and enjoyed dramatically less psychological flourishing, all while disliking their jobs and being slightly worse at them compared to peers in their profession. 

In fact, negative primals — the world is dangerous, things are getting worse, competition is brutal, life is unfair, etc. — were almost never associated with positive outcomes. For example, a “safe” world belief was strongly correlated with increased life satisfaction in the vast majority of occupations — including professions where the ability to spot a threat is clearly useful, like law enforcement.

I know what you might be thinking, because I’ve thought it too: “I want my kids to be confident and optimistic and get out there and try things… but I also want them to be cautious and careful and not just trust situations blindly.”

Sounds good, but the “moderation approach” didn’t turn out to be particularly helpful. The study found that seeing the world as “very positive” was associated with more positive outcomes than seeing the world as “moderately positive.”

Instead the researchers found that very positive primals were in no way harmful.

As the researchers write:

The hundreds of subjects who saw the world as very safe, for example, did not achieve increased success, health, and wellbeing by stumbling through life in a positive haze, unable to perceive, anticipate, or respond to threats.

(Why?) Primals are not behaviors, but beliefs, and, as beliefs about general character only – the world’s traits not states – much interpretive flexibility is inherent.

Primal world beliefs are trait beliefs about the universe that entail no totalizing thinking. 

Or in non-researcher speak, we can believe the world is inherently safe… while still understanding that specific situations can be unsafe. We can believe that life can have purpose and meaning… while still understanding that sometimes a task will be tedious and boring. We can believe that people are kind and cooperative and helpful… while still understanding that Joe can be a selfish, narcissistic jerk.

In short, teaching kids that the world is a bad place won’t protect them. It makes them grow up to be less adventurous, not more. To be less trusting, not more. To be less happy with their lives, not more. 

Because mindset is everything.

And a positive mindset will always be better than a negative one.

Both for your kids, and for the people they eventually surround themselves with.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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