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Happiness research distilled for parents: Top Ten Take Homes

Published on: December 30, 2013

happy is good when it's real
happy is good when it's real

"I just want my child to be happy." How often have you heard this line? But don't you want your kid to also be kind, moral, industrious and loving?

What makes Americans so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness? Is it the Declaration of Independence? The recession? Or have we merely arrived at a unique moment in our history, because we have “data” on such topics as happiness? Despite decades of economic growth since WWII, research has documented that Americans are not happier, even though Europeans are.

As a parent, how much focus on happiness should figure into your parenting priorities? Since I am a psychologist specializing in children and families, I want to address this last question here.

Controversy abounds in the fields of research on positivity, optimism and happiness. Over 4,000 books have been published on the subjects in the last decade! Does too much happiness make us soft, egocentric and less conscientious? Does too little harm our chances for health, wealth, good relationships and success at reaching future goals? Even if we think in terms of “balance”, we’re left with questions about how to apply all this theory and research to real-live, hurly burly family life. And since around 50% of our potential for happiness is genetically determined, how much should we focus on it anyway?

Happiness research findings do have important implications for how we lead our lives and how we parent. Here are some nuggets for my “Top Ten Take Homes”:

1. Think hard about the role of desire in your life and your children’s life. Happiness is both a feeling state and a values-based part of life experience. Since our brains can be tricked into thinking “more is better”, it is essential that we put a check on our yearnings. The second piece of pie is never as good as the first.

2. Face the fact that we are often driven by emotion, not reason. We can be terrible judges of what makes us happy in the long run, so we squander lots of money, time and energy on pursuing illusory or feel-good stuff (e.g. food, philandering, media, toys, money, perfectionism, workoholic lives, etc.)

3. Prioritize and savor healthy, loving and meaningful experiences. A happy life is composed of satisfying work, deep relationships with others and a sense of purpose. To achieve this package, sometimes we choose a delay of gratification, hard work, adversity and sacrifice. There also comes a time for “be here now”, “carpe diem” and “savor the moment.” Ah, the terrible, wonderful question of balance.

4. Be optimistic. Children who are pessimistic or moody are at risk for limited life options, and parents need to learn how to help them. Counting blessings and assuming a “glass half full” perspective can help free us up to deal with the hard stuff of life.

5. Practice positive thinking, talking and doing. Keeping a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions has been found to be the magic balance. It’s often easier to be negative and ruminate, but people flourish by being open, curious, appreciative and generous. Don’t overdo it to the point of being insincere, vacuous and excessive. Inflating your children with saccharine praise innervates them and destroys trust and a good work ethic. Genuineness is paramount.

6. Be realistic and accurate in your thinking too. Awareness of difficulties spurs problem-solving and seeking support when we really need it.

7. Practice the attitude of gratitude and doing acts of kindness. Role model it by verbalizing gratefulness at the dinner table, sending letters of appreciation to people and doing random acts of kindness in your community.

8. Surround your children with positive role models and positive people. Our brains are interpersonal organs and open wi-fi systems. Research on obesity, school achievement and happiness has shown there is a contagion effect for good and bad influences.

9. Limit screen time and media access. We need help our children avoid a sedentary lifestyle, negative social influences and wasting time that can be spent in positive youth engagement (e.g. school activities, athletics, talent development, volunteering). Brain research reveals that what we say, do, feel, and experience affects neural growth. We should be mindful of our family “consumer” habits.

10. Avoid bubble-wrapping your child. Out of exposure to some adversity, risk and freedom to make mistakes, children develop many emotional, social, educational and life competencies. Ironically, a happy life seems to evolve out of many lessons learned from unhappy times.

Eleanor Roosevelt is known for asserting that happiness should be less of a goal than a byproduct of a life well-lived. I’m prone to agree with her. I also like the advice from the Oracle of Delphi, “Know Thyself” and Socrates’ add-on maxim of “Nothing in Excess.” It’s amazing how wise ones of yore can provide some of the best “take homes.”

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