Personal and Social Assets That Promote Well-Being
Having laid out the major developmental changes and challenges associated with adolescence, we now turn to a discussion of the personal and social assets likely to facilitate both successful passage through this period of life and optimal transition into the next phase of life—adulthood.1 What assets during adolescence facilitate both current well-being and successful future transitions? The answer to this question is fundamental to both the design and the evaluation of community programs for youth. Without such a blueprint, funders will be unable to decide which programs to support, program developers will be hard pressed to design programs since they will not know what they should
be trying to facilitate, and evaluators will have little basis for deciding what outcomes to measure.2
HOW TO MEASURE WELL-BEING
Many scientists and practitioners have offered suggestions. Most importantly, there is wide consensus that being problem-free is not sufficient. “Adolescents who are merely problem-free are not fully prepared for their future” (Pittman, 1991). As noted in Chapter 1 (and described in Chapter 6), this view goes well beyond a prevention focus. It emphasizes that programs aimed primarily at reducing the odds of adolescents becoming involved in problem behaviors are not sufficient. Interestingly, as noted in Chapter 1 many successful “prevention” programs do more than just prevent problem behavior. They also provide experiences aimed at preparing youth for the future. But deciding what constitutes either fully prepared or positive youth development more generally is quite complex. Although many characteristics have been suggested, determining the value of each is not a simple matter. It involves value judgments regarding what is good as well as comprehensive longitudinal research on the links between youth characteristics and adult outcomes. In this chapter, we provide an overview of the many positive assets suggested by both scientists and practitioners and then summarize the empirical foundation supporting these suggestions.
We begin with a brief discussion of the issue of universality versus cultural specificity. Is it possible to come up with a set of indicators that is universal? Or is cultural specificity the norm? The committee debated this issue extensively. There is no question that cultural groups vary in the characteristics they value most for both their youth and adults. A very good example of this is the contrast between groups who value individuality, autonomy, and self-focused achievement and groups who value cooperation and group-focused achievement efforts (Garcia Coll and Magnuson, 2000; Shweder et al., 1998). Specific indicators of well-being are likely to be somewhat different in these two groups. However, it is also likely that there are some universal human needs that manifest themselves in specific characteristics or assets as indicators of the individuals’ well-being. Even so, it is likely that the exact manifestations
vary depending on the cultural context. For example, both theory and empirical research suggest that a sense of competence is key to positive human development. However, the exact domains in which one “should” feel competent are likely to be quite culturally specific; that is, a positive sense of competence will depend on competence in those areas valued by the cultural group of which one is a member (Ogbu, 1994; Shweder et al., 1998).
The committee concluded that this debate could be reconciled to some extent by carefully considering the level of analysis. On one hand, we agreed that there are some universals at the most abstract level of consideration—universals such as the need to feel competent, to be socially connected, to feel valued and respected, to actually be making a difference in one’s social group, to feel that one has some control over one’s own behaviors and experiences, and to have one’s physical and emotional needs met. We also agreed that the failure to have these needs met has a negative effect on development (see evidence later in this and the next chapter). On the other hand, we agreed that there would be extensive cultural specificity when one moves to a more specific level of analysis. What this means is that one must take the local cultural context into account as programs are designed and evaluated.
The committee also spent a great deal of time discussing how to select a list of indicators of well-being, particularly given the cultural issues just outlined. We decided to rely on three sources: theory, practical wisdom, and empirical research. Within the theory category, we drew on developmental theories from psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Within the category of empirical research, we reviewed three types of evidence: (1) evidence that particular characteristics are either positively related concurrently to other indicators of well-being or negatively related concurrently to indicators of problematic development; (2) evidence that particular characteristics predict positive indicators of adult well-being and of a “successful”3 transition to normative adult statuses; and (3) evidence that the experimental manipulation or training of particular characteristics produces changes on other indicators of either
current well-being and adequate functioning or a successful transition into adulthood. Finally, we included practical wisdom as a source, because practitioners in both the prevention and youth development communities have done considerable work over the past 20 to 30 years that merits inclusion. In addition, cultures have developed theories of well-being over centuries of experience. We agreed that these sources of wisdom should not be overlooked.
We found substantial convergence across these three sources of information. However, it is important to note that such convergence does not necessarily mean that we have found “the truth.” Only true experiments (the third type of empirical study) provide unequivocal evidence of a causal relation between the characteristic being studied and other indicators. There are few such studies and they are often very difficult to conduct, given the nature of the characteristics being studied. In addition, in order to run carefully controlled experimental studies, scientists often have to simplify the proposed relations between hypothesized causes and effects. Some developmental scientists have questioned the impact of such simplifications on the generalizability and ecological validity of the findings (see Cook and Campbell, 1979; Damon and Lerner, 1998). Consequently, they have turned to longitudinal studies as one way to study these associations over time in the complexity of the real world. However, although longitudinal studies provide information about hypothesized causal relations, obtained relations may reflect the impact of variables not measured in the study (for example, see Damon and Lerner, 1998; Robins and Robertson, 1998; Rutter, 2000, for discussions of this issue). Cook and his colleagues (see Cook and Campbell, 1979; Damon and Lerner, 1998), as well as others, have provided a variety of alternative methods for investigating causal inferences; more studies using these methods are badly needed.
In the meantime, the convergence of theory, practical wisdom, and empirical research does provide us with strong hints regarding likely important personal and social assets. It should be noted that manipulating program and participant characteristics is exactly what we are asking the community programs to do. Careful evaluation of these programs will not only tell us about the program’s effectiveness, but it will also provide experimentally based evidence for the hypothesized causal relations underlying the program’s design. Developmental scientists need to pay more attention to these programs as laboratories for studying fundamental questions about human development.
Developmental theoreticians have speculated on the core human needs and how their fulfillment relates to well-being. Perhaps the most fully elaborated developmental model of this link was proposed by Eric Erikson (see Appendix A). We provided details on his theoretical framework in Chapter 2. For our current purposes, what is most important about Erikson’s framework is the specific assets he outlined as critical to healthy development: trust (which he linked to a positive emotional relationships with caring adults), a strong sense of self-sufficiency, the ability to exercise initiative, a strong sense of industry (confidence in one’s ability to master the demands of one’s world), a well-formed sense of personal identity, and the ability to experience and express true intimacy. Interestingly, quite similar assets have been proposed by many other developmental theorists (e.g., Bowlby, 1969, 1973; Harter, 1998; Bandura, 1994; Deci and Ryan, 1985; Connell and Wellborn, 1991; Lerner and Galambos, 1998; Lerner et al., 2000; Rutter and Garmezy, 1983). Their lists include: confidence in one’s ability to influence the world and achieve one’s goals (a sense of personal efficacy), a strong internal desire to engage in important activities (intrinsic motivation), a desire to master the learning tasks one is confronted with in life (mastery motivation), a strong desire to be socially connected, the ability to control and regulate one’s emotions (good emotional coping skills), a sense of optimism, and an attachment to at least one or two conventional prosocial institutions, such as schools, faith-based institutions, families, and community organizations.
Recently, Murnane and Levy (1996) stressed the importance a set of skills like the ones just listed, for successful entry into the adult labor market. Together these theorists suggest the following characteristics as core assets for both current and future well-being:
A sense of safety and having one’s basic physical needs met;
A sense of social security and attachment—confidence that one’s emotional needs will be met (social connectedness);
A sense of competence and mastery (a sense of personal efficacy and mastery motivation);
A desire to learn and curiosity about one’s world (intrinsic motivation);
A sense of identity and meaning in one’s life (personal and social identities);
Positive self-regard and general mental health; and
A positive sense of attachment to social institutions.
Over the past 20 or so years, many lists of assets have been proposed by foundations, youth-serving organizations, and practitioners—for example, Connell et al., (2000); the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research (1999); the Search Institute (Scales and Leffert, 1999); Carnegie Corporation of New York (1989); Dryfoos (1990); Lerner et al. (2000); Lipsitz et al. (1997); Pittman et al. (2000b); and Roth and Brooks-Gunn (2000). The Search Institute has provided the most extensive list of personal and social assets, along with a comprehensive review of supporting empirical research (Scales and Leffert, 1999). Their set falls into six general areas: commitment to learning, positive values; social competencies (including planning skills and both interpersonal and cultural competence); positive personal identity; commitment to positive use of time; and a sense of autonomy and “mattering.” Others have added good physical health, cultural knowledge and skills, the ability to navigate across multiple cultural contexts and groups, creativity, the skills needed to get and keep a job, and strong institutional attachments. Finally, in one of the most parsimonious lists, Connell, Gambone, and Smith (2000) proposed three critical assets: the ability to be productive, the ability to connect, and the ability to navigate.
In a recent consensus meeting (see Roth and Brooks-Gunn, 2000), youth development advocates and youth development researchers met and agreed on the following set:
Caring and compassion;
Competence in academic, social, and vocational arenas;
Consistent with our general notion that one can have both universals and culturally specific assets, each of these five assets can be broken down into subcomponents that reflect cultural specificity. These five are very consistent with the set of assets growing out of developmental
theory. As we show in the next section, there is also growing evidence to support the importance of each of these five general characteristics.
There has been substantial research over the past 50 years aimed at identifying the key characteristics associated with success in American society. Much of this work has grown out of an effort to understand resilience and well-being. By and large, these suggestions coincide quite closely with the suggestions made by both practitioners and theorists.
For example, in a classic longitudinal study of development of poor children and their families on Kauai, Hawaii, Emmy Werner and her colleagues (1982, 1992) concluded that the following characteristics are key for resilience: good cognitive skills; good social skills and an engaging personality; self-confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of personal efficacy; good self-regulation skills; good coping and adaptation skills; good health; strong social connections to family; strong social connections to prosocial organizations and networks, such as schools, faith-based institutions, community organizations, and service-related clubs and organizations; and spirituality or a sense of meaningfulness. Clausen (1993) and Elder (1974) reached similar conclusions based on their classic longitudinal work done on the Berkeley and Oakland Growth Studies. Clausen (1993) added “planfulness” (i.e., planning for the future and future life events) to the list.
In each of these studies (as well as many others), the presence of these assets predicted better current and subsequent well-being. Furthermore, in each of these studies, having more assets predicted better outcomes than having fewer assets. The benefits of these assets, on the average, appear to accumulate both over time and over the number of assets one has.4 Recent reviews of both the prevention and resiliency literatures suggest quite a similar list of characteristics as protective factors against getting involved in a variety of problematic behaviors (e.g., Catalano et al., 2000).
PERSONAL AND SOCIAL ASSETS
Based upon the committee’s review of theory, practical wisdom, and empirical research, as well as related studies of resilience and adolescent development, we have organized our list of key assets around four general categories: physical health, cognitive development, psychological and emotional development, and social development. The key indicators associated with each of these categories are listed in Box 3–1. The subcomponents of our list closely match the characteristics already discussed. Our final list differs only in the addition of good physical and mental health and in the elaboration of the general categories.
The existing literature suggests three major conclusions: (1) it is beneficial to have assets in each of the four general categories; (2) within each general category, one can do quite well with only a subset of the many characteristics listed; and (3) in general, having more assets is predictive of better current and future well-being than having only a few. However, as noted earlier, these inferences are based largely on correlational designs (both time-limited and longitudinal). More experimental studies are needed to confirm these hypotheses.
Despite the importance of physical health for youth well-being and development, much of the empirical research focuses on poor health outcomes, such as obesity, chronic illnesses (e.g., asthma), and acute conditions (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases) rather than indicators of good health. This emphasis on physical health risks rather than positive health status is driven in part by evidence linking specific behaviors in childhood and adolescence to the development of chronic diseases in adulthood. There is, however, a growing body of research suggesting that some behaviors have direct health benefits for adolescents in addition to reducing risks of illness and death in the adult years. Two behaviors—physical activity and healthy eating—have strong support for their beneficial health effects for young people.
Regular physical activity has been shown to improve the aerobic endurance and muscle strength of children and youth (Dotson and Ross, 1985; Treuth et al., 1998; Baranowski et al., 1992). It has been associated with decreases in blood pressure (Strazzullo et al., 1988), higher HDL cholesterol levels, lower triglycerides (Armstrong and Simon-Morton, 1994), and favorable glucose and insulin levels (Voors et al.,
BOX 3–1 Personal and Social Assets That Facilitate Positive Youth Development
Psychological and emotional development
1982), particularly among young people at risk for cardiovascular disease. In addition, there is some evidence that regular physical activity bolsters self-esteem and self-confidence, important determinants of psychological and social functioning (Jaffee and Manzer,1992; Brown and Harrison, 1986).
In the United States, overnourishment, not undernourishment, is a major health issue, and much of the research on diet has focused on obesity. Once viewed as a primary risk factor for adult cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, there is some recent evidence to suggest that excess weight carries with it more immediate health consequences for young people. In particular, recent increases in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes, generally an adult disorder, has been associated with rising obesity rates for children and youth (Libman and Arslanian, 1999; Falkner and Michel, 1999; Rosenbloom et al., 1999). On the deficit
side, failure to consume adequate amounts of essential nutrients has been linked with poor school performance (Meyers et al., 1991) and general deficits in cognitive functioning (Kretchner et al., 1996).
Not all youth are equally affected. Minority and poor adolescents are disproportionately represented among the obese (Troiano et al., 1995; Winkleby, 1994) and dietary-related deficits in cognitive functioning have been found among poor schoolchildren (Meyers et al., 1991). Families who live in poor communities are constrained by both the cost and ready availability of healthful foods required for a balanced diet.
Most interventions to promote healthy diets and physical activity for youth have been conducted in schools (Resnicow et al., 1996). There is less empirical work that assesses the effectiveness of community programs to improve their diet and physical activity (Pate et al., 2000). The Active Winners, an after-school and summer physical activity program
targeting black 5th grade students in rural South Carolina (Pate et al., 1997) and the Minnesota Heart Health Program, one site of three in a large-scale cardiovascular risk reduction study (Keldner et al., 1993) are two community-based studies demonstrating promising trends in dietary choices (Keldner et al., 1993) and physical activity (Keldner et al., 1993; Pate et al., 1997) but no significant changes in behaviors at this point in the study. New programs focused jointly on diet and exercise have been developed by such organizations as Boys and Girls Clubs of America (e.g., their Body Works program) and Girls, Inc. (e.g., their Peer Coaches, Steppingstones, and Bridges programs) and are currently moving beyond successful pilot tests to more comprehensive evaluations. Given the paucity of community-based studies, it is premature to discount the potential effectiveness of programs to promote healthy eating and physical activity delivered in such community settings as recreation centers, churches, and schools. There is a need to better understand how community health promotion programs work with school-based and family interventions to foster optimal physical health.
There is quite strong support for the importance of life skills, academic success in school, “planfulness,” and good decision-making skills for positive development. Academic success is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful predictors of both present and future well-being, including mental health, school completion and ultimate educational attainment, ultimate occupational attainment, prosocial values and behaviors, good relations with parents and prosocial friends, high levels of volunteerism, and low levels of involvement in such problematic behaviors as risky sexual behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and involvement in criminal activities (e.g., Alexander et al., 1993, 1994; Clausen, 1993; Elder, 1998; Elder and Conger, 2000; Entwisle and Alexander, 1993; Entwisle et al., 1987; Jessor et al., 1991; Scales and Leffert, 1999; Schweinhart et al., 1993; Werner and Smith, 1982, 1992).
Interestingly, the link of academic success in school to mental health and self-esteem is much weaker for blacks and for females (Eccles et al., 1999). As a group of individuals (such as blacks or females) learns that they are not expected to do well in school (or in math and physical science for females) and in fact do not do as well as other groups, they often, according to Claude Steele (Steele, 1992; Steele and Aronson, 1995), come to place less importance on doing well in school (or math and
physical science for females). By less “importance,” Steele means the importance of the domain for the individual’s self-esteem and self-evaluation; specifically, he predicted that both success and failure in devalued domains would come to mean less to the person’s sense of self than success or failure in more valued domains of life. By lowering the value attached to doing well in school (or in particular subjects like math and science), individuals in particular groups can protect their self-esteem from the experience of failure and discrimination in those settings.
Steele labeled this phenomenon “deidentification” (see also Fordham and Ogbu, 1986). It is critical to note here that deidentification occurs because of the social conditions that groups of people experience in school or other institutional settings. Consequently, the processes associated with deidentification are quite amenable to intervention and policy changes, and Steele and his colleagues have developed and tested model programs for such interventions (see work by Stelle and Aronson, 1995). Such programs consist of experiences designed to prepare the early adolescent for the stereotypes they are likely to confront about their ability to do well in school, provide them with alternative explanations for their academic difficulties, provide them with experiences of success in mastering these academic tasks, and provide them with tutoring to bolster their basic skills.
The issues addressed by Steele and Ogbu need to be researched for other populations. It seems likely that any personal or cultural characteristic that lowers the value attached to academic achievement will serve to both reduce the connection between academic success and subsequent mental health and lessen adolescents’ commitment to working hard to do well in school. Furthermore, it is likely that cultural norms and values that stress adult outcomes not linked to education and competitive occupational pursuits will also reduce the value attached to school-based academic achievement during the adolescent years. Finally, school practices that stress behaviors and values at odds with local cultural norms and values (such as a school’s valuing of competition and individual success more highly than the cooperative success and joint problem solving valued in some cultural communities) are likely to reduce the value that members of the local cultural group place on academic school achievement.
The research on girl-friendly math and science instruction is an excellent example of this last point. Years of research (see Eccles et al., 1998) have documented the fact that many girls and boys are turned off to math by competitive motivational strategies and individualistic work
activities (rather than cooperative motivational strategies and group-oriented work activities). Changing these teaching practices has a substantial impact on both girls’ and boys’ interest and performance in math and science courses. More work is needed to determine if similar processes and interventions would work to support school achievement in those cultural groups that currently are not doing as well in school as white middle-class populations. Educational programs reviewed in later chapters suggest that such interventions can work in community programs. The Family Math and Family Computer Literacy programs developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, provide excellent models of such interventions (University of California, Berkeley, 2001). But more experimental evaluation studies of such interventions are needed.
Interestingly, many intervention studies have used school academic success as the outcome and have attempted to change psychological and social characteristics in an effort to raise academic achievement. Some of these efforts have been quite successful in limited experimental settings (e.g., Felner et al., 1997; Schunk, 1994; Schweinhart and Weikart, 1997). Efforts to expand such interventions to scale have yielded more mixed results (see Eccles et al., 1998). In addition, more work is needed to see if these interventions can be adapted for use in programs in out-of-school hours. Finally, although several studies have documented the importance of life skills training for positive development, we know little about which particular life skills and competencies are most important for youth in different cultural, ethnic, gender, and social class settings.
Most of the work on “habits of mind” has been done by educational researchers. They define habits of mind in terms of approaching challenging intellectual tasks and new learning opportunities with active reasoning and “deep” and recurring inquiry and questioning, experimentation, continual monitoring of one’s learning, continual attempts to apply new learning to novel situations, and being intellectually curious about one’s world. Both correlational studies and experimental interventions have demonstrated that these cognitive approaches facilitate new learning, persistence in the face of failure, and generalization of what one has learned to new situations (National Research Council, 1999; DeLoache et al., 1998; Jackson and Davis, 2000; Pintrich and Schunk, 1996 for reviews).
The work on the importance of knowledge of multiple cultures for well-being is also very limited because it is so new. This work has focused primarily on how the knowledge of multiple cultural scripts and
norms is advantageous to minority youth who have to navigate in both their own culture and the majority white culture (see Banks, 1995; Castro et al., 2000; Phelan et al., 1992; Phelan and Davidson, 1993; Spencer and Markstrom-Adams, 1990; Markstrom-Adams and Spencer, 1994). Other work has documented the role of multiple cultural knowledge and friendships in facilitating interethnic relations (Banks, 1995; Hawley and Jackson, 1995). Much more work is needed on whether knowledge of multiple cultures is an asset for white middle-class youth.
Psychological and Emotional Development
There is quite strong longitudinal and cross-sectional support for the importance of mental health, good self-regulation skills of all kinds, a sense of autonomy and self-control, confidence in one’s self-efficacy and in one’s competence in valued domains (such as sports, music, school subjects, and getting along with others), optimism, and “planfulness” (Bandura, 1994; Clausen, 1993; Compas et al., 1986; Connell and Wellborn, 1991; Deci and Ryan, 1985; Dweck, 1999; Elder and Conger, 2000; Jessor et al., 1991; Lord et al., 1994; Luthar and Zigler, 1992; Mac Iver et al., 1991; Skinner, 1995; Pintrich et al., 1993; Werner and Smith, 1992; Zimmerman, et al., 1992; Zimmerman, 2000; see Eccles et al., 1998, and Scales and Leffert, 1999, for additional references). The relations appear to be equally strong among all groups studied. However, little research has been conducted on American Indian youth, recent immigrant populations, or Hispanics. Finally, intervention efforts to change some of these assets have shown positive consequences for other indicators of positive development, such as school success, positive transitions into the labor market, and both avoidance of and reduction in problem behaviors.
Most often, however, the studies (both correlational and experimental) have included only one or two psychological characteristics and only one or two outcomes, so little is known about the relative importance of these various psychological characteristics for different outcomes. What we do know is that the associations are particularly strong when there is close correspondence between the characteristic being trained and the outcome being studied. For example, training in resistance skills is quite effective at increasing both confidence in one’s ability to resist peer pressure and actual ability to resist peer pressure; similarly, conflict management training is effective at producing declines in aggressive behaviors and conduct disorder (Bandura, 1994; Donahue, 1987; Ellickson and
Hayes, 1990, 1991; Johnson and Johnson, 1996; Miller et al., 1998; see also Scales and Leffert, 1999). These patterns of findings suggest that programs should be careful in selecting evaluation indicators that closely match the characteristics targeted for support and training.
Consistent findings among a limited number of high-quality correlational (both concurrent—data collected only at one point in time—and longitudinal—data collected over a period of time) studies are emerging to support the predictive importance of such characteristics as prosocial values, spirituality and a sense of purpose, moral character (e.g., Benson and Donahue, 1989; Benson et al., 1997; Eisenberg and Fabes, 1998; Hanson and Ginsburg, 1987; Kirby et al., 1994; Litchfield et al., 1997; Wentzel, 1991; Werner and Smith, 1992), a strong sense of personal responsibility (Elder and Conger, 1999), a strong sense of mattering and meaning in life (DuRant et al., 1995; Elder and Conger, 2000; Werner and Smith, 1992), and a positive and coherent personal identity (Abramowitz et al., 1984; Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1980; Waterman, 1982). However, many of these studies have been correlational, short term, and have included only one or two assets. Consequently, little is known about the relative predictive importance of these assets. We also know very little about how to influence these characteristics and whether increases in them will actually produce changes in other characteristics in the short term as well as in successful transition into adulthood over the long term.
Similarly, good support is emerging for the potential importance of positive and coherent social identities (identities related to one’s membership in a social group, such as male or female, black, Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic, Irish, etc.). A few recent studies have found that having a strong positive ethnic identity is associated with having high self-esteem, a strong commitment to doing well in school, a strong sense of purpose in life, great confidence in one’s own personal efficacy, and high academic achievement (e.g., Beauvais, 2000; Boykin, 1986; Cross, 1991, 1995; Ford and Harris, 1996; Phelan and Davidson, 1993; Phinney, 1990, 1990; Fisher et al., 1998; Spencer, 1995; Tatum, 1997). Researchers studying the importance of ethnic identities stress the importance of adolescents of non-European ethnic heritage having the opportunity to explore their ethnic identities and other’s ethnicity without fear of being stereotyped, harassed, or rejected (Fine et al., 1997; Tatum, 1997). Community programs may provide such opportunities.
Interestingly, these same studies indicate that discriminatory racial experiences have a less negative association with subsequent psychologi-
cal and emotional development for black adolescents with strong African American identities. The data suggest that these youth respond to the experiences of racial discrimination with an increased commitment to doing well in school and to equipping themselves with all of the social and intellectual skills needed to succeed in mainstream society (Wong and Taylor, 1998).
More comprehensive long-term longitudinal work and more work focused on actually changing these assets and then assessing the effect of such changes on well-being are urgently needed. In addition, little is known about the importance of these characteristics across cultural, ethnic, social class, and gender groups. The little available evidence suggests that most of these characteristics are important in all cultural groups (see Scales and Leffert, 1999). However, this work is still in its infancy.
There is very strong concurrent and longitudinal correlational evidence of the predictive importance of connectedness, being valued by the larger society, and institutional attachments for positive youth development. These social assets predict school success, mastery of all types of “taught” skills, long-term educational and occupational attainment, good mental health, positive personal and social identities, confidence in one’s efficacy, optimism, and good self-regulation skills of all kinds. These social assets also predict both the avoidance of involvement in problem behaviors and a relatively smooth transition into such key adult roles as intimate partner, spouse, parent, worker, and active community member (e.g., Cairns and Cairns, 1994; Connell et al., 1995; Conger and Elder, 2000; Furstenberg et al., 1999; Wentzel, 1991; Werner and Smith, 1992). These relations hold for all groups studied. However, there have been very few experimental studies focused on assessing whether changes in these social assets are causally related to changes in either current well-being or future successful transition into adulthood.
The need to belong has been suggested to be one of the strongest human motivational needs (Bowlby, 1969, 1988; Rossi and Rossi, 1990). As a result, individuals act as though they are highly motivated to become a part of a larger social group, even if such associations are not always good for them in the long run. Becoming integrated into a group usually entails adopting the group’s social norms, behaviors, and values. As identification with the group becomes stronger and more long-lived, the individual is likely to internalize these values and norms. It is this
internalization of values and norms that is likely to underlie the impact of social group membership on specific behaviors (Deci and Ryan, 1985). Under optimal conditions, these processes lead to the internalization of prosocial and moral values and goals. It is important to note, however, that individuals can form quite strong connections with antisocial or problematic groups or individuals. This is very likely to happen when connections with more prosocial groups and organizations do not form because the individual either fails in these healthier environments or is excluded or pushed out by the prosocial groups themselves (Cairns and Cairns, 1994; Fine, 1991; Sampson and Laub, 1993). Community programs provide an excellent venue for providing the opportunity to become socially attached to positive social institutions and peer groups with positive social values.
There is less evidence for the importance of either the ability and desire to participate in multiple cultural settings or a commitment to civic engagement and service—not because the evidence is negative but because there have been so few studies focusing on these social developmental characteristics. The few existing studies provide preliminary support (e.g., Phalen et al., 1992; Yates and Youniss, 1998, 1999), but more research is needed, particularly given the strong theoretical reasons to believe that these two characteristics should be important in a multicultural society.
We have reviewed what is known about the relation of a set of personal and social assets widely acknowledged as important for development to both adolescent well-being and functioning and the successful transition into adulthood. We used three types of empirical studies in this review: studies linking the personal and social assets listed in Box 3– 1 to indicators of positive current development, studies linking these characteristics to indicators of future positive adult development, and experimental studies designed to change the asset under study. The indicators of current well-being include good mental health, good school performance, good peer relations, good problem-solving skills, and very low levels (or the absence) of involvement in a variety of problem behaviors, such as gang membership, drug and alcohol use, school failure, school dropout, delinquency, and early pregnancy. Indicators of positive development during late adolescence and adulthood include completing high school, completing higher education, adequate transition into the labor
market (obtaining and keeping a job that pays at least a living wage), staying out of prison, avoiding drug and alcohol abuse, and entering a stable and supportive intimate relationship (often through marriage). Some recent studies also include involvement in civic and community activities as indicators of positive adult development.
We found strong correlational support for the relation of most of the assets listed in Box 3–1 with indicators of both positive development during adolescents and the successful transition into adulthood. Because of the recency of interest in the role of cultural understanding and tolerance and social identities, few studies document the association of these assets to well-being. The strongest experimental evidence of a causal relation between personal assets and other indicators of positive development exists for intellectual and social or life skills.
Limitations of the Research Base
Most of the studies reviewed used only a small subset of these indicators of positive development—often only one. Too many of the studies relied on data collected only at one point in time (called concurrent studies). Findings from such studies are difficult to interpret because the causal directions underlying the relations are unclear. In addition, the majority of the concurrent studies focused on white middle-class populations. In contrast, several ongoing longitudinal studies have included a wide range of populations in many types of environments. The findings of these studies suggest that the findings from the concurrent studies are likely to also be true of groups other than white middle-class populations. Together the concurrent and longitudinal studies provide a growing body of consistent evidence supporting the predictive importance of the set of characteristics we have identified. Nevertheless, more comprehensive longitudinal studies that follow children and youth into and through the young adult years are urgently needed. This need is particularly true for populations that are neither white, middle class, nor suburban. Work on American Indian and recent immigrant populations is particularly sparse.
The issue of causal direction of influence is quite complex and is equally problematic for both concurrent and longitudinal research. It is likely that many of these assets are reciprocally related to each other—making the search for causal order in naturalistic studies difficult. Some researchers argue that such a search is actually counterproductive, precisely because of the complex and reciprocal nature of the relations
among the constructs discussed in this chapter and the next. But intervention programs have to consider whether changing particular characteristics or assets, such as self-esteem or a sense of personal efficacy, will lead to changes in other indicators of well-being, such as school achievement or avoidance of problem behaviors. Controlled intervention studies are needed to address this issue; some were discussed in this chapter; more are discussed in later chapters. We have indicated when such studies provide support for the importance of particular characteristics. More research involving active efforts to change assets and then measure the effect of such changes on other assets and on future indicators of well-being is urgently needed.
The period of adolescence is complicated: it is full of opportunities and risks. Adolescents have the potential to develop into mature, strong, creative, and smart adults. But, some take, or are exposed to, unhealthy and unsafe risks that can endanger both their present health and well-being and their future adult opportunities. In this chapter, we provide a summary of what is known about the personal and social assets likely to facilitate positive development during this period of life. We suggested ways in which this information is relevant to the development of community programs for youth. This information, in conjunction with the material discussed in the next chapter, can help program developers design programs, funders decide what kinds of programs to fund, and evaluators to design or select appropriate implementation and outcome measures.
Based on the material summarized in this chapter, the committee identified a set of personal and social assets that both represent healthy development and well-being during adolescence and facilitate a successful transition from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. The committee grouped these assets into four broad developmental domains: physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional, and social development. One does not need necessarily need the entire range of assets listed in this chapter to have a good life. For instance, studies that include more than one of these assets have found that youth can do quite well with various combinations of the studied assets. Nevertheless, having more assets is better than having a few and having positive assets in each of the four broad categories is beneficial. Although strong assets in
one category may be able to offset weak assets in another category, life is easier to manage if one has assets in all four categories.
Although the body of evidence supporting the assets listed in this chapter is growing, much more comprehensive longitudinal and experimental research on a wider range of populations that follows children and adolescents well into adulthood is needed in order to understand which assets are most important to adolescent development and which patterns of assets are linked to particular types of successful adult transitions in various cultural settings. There is a pressing need for longitudinal studies to illuminate:
How these assets work together (this means more comprehensive studies of both assets and outcomes) and
How these various assets are manifested and valued in different cultural groups.
There is also a pressing need for more field-based experimental studies to confirm the hypothesized causal relations in complex settings.
In conclusion, it is also important to note that these personal and social assets do not exist in a vacuum. Evidence suggests that these assets influence life chances because they both (1) facilitate the engagement of youth in positive social settings that support continued positive development and (2) protect them against the adverse effects of negative life events, difficult social situations, pressure to engage in risky behaviors, and academic failures. So on one hand, the personal and social assets discussed in this chapter can increase life chances. On the other hand, excessive and prolonged exposure to negative life events, dangerous settings, and inadequate schooling are likely to undermine young people’s life chances despite their assets. Young people need continued exposure to positive experiences, settings, and people as well as abundant opportunities to gain and refine their life skills in order to support the acquisition and growth of these assets.