For many parents, raising happy children is the holy grail of parenting success. But too often, we think happiness is about those fleeting moments of getting what you want. Lasting happiness is actually much more complicated, but much more rewarding. And yes, you can dramatically increase your child's chances of being happy, just by the way you raise them.
What makes a happy child who grows into a happy adult? Since happiness is a by-product of emotional health, this entire website is about helping you raise a happy child, from meeting your infant's need to be soothed to helping your child develop optimism. But let's talk specifically about what makes humans happy.
The latest research on happiness gives us surprising answers. Once survival, safety and basic comforts are assured, external circumstances don't impact our happiness level much. Our genes certainly contribute to our happiness quotient, but their affect can be ameliorated to ratchet up our happiness set points to a higher level. The largest determinant of our happiness turns out to be our own mental, emotional and physical habits, which create the body chemistry that determines our happiness level.
We all know that some of us tend to be more upbeat than others. Part of this is inborn, just the fate of our genes that give us a happier mood. But much of our mood is related to habit.
It may seem odd to have happiness referred to as a habit. But it's likely that by the time we're adults, we have settled into a “happiness set point” that doesn't change unless we work at it.
Happiness is closely linked to three kinds of habits:
- How we think and feel about the world, and therefore perceive our experiences;
- Certain actions or habits, such as regular exercise, eating healthfully, meditating, connecting with other people, savoring the “good,” and even regularly smiling and laughing;
- Character traits such as self-control, industry, fairness, caring about others, contribution, courage, leadership and honesty.
In practice, these character traits are just habits; tendencies to act in certain ways when confronted with certain types of situations. And certainly, it makes sense that the more we exhibit these traits, the better our lives work, the better we feel about ourselves and the more meaning we find in life — so the happier we are.
Some of the habits that create happiness are visible, the ways Grandma told us we ought to live: work hard, value relationships with other people, keep our bodies healthy, manage our money responsibly and contribute to our community.
Others are more personal habits of self-management that insulate us from unhappiness and create joy in our lives, such as managing our moods and cultivating optimism. But once we make such habits part of our lives, they become automatic and serve a protective function, making us more resilient.
How can you support your child — and yourself — to develop the habits that lead to happiness? These tips will get you started.
1. Teach your child constructive mental habits that create happiness.
Managing our moods, positive self-talk, cultivating optimism, celebrating life, practicing gratitude, and appreciating our connectedness to each other and the entire universe are all habits that make us happier. Build these into your life together so you model them regularly and talk about using them. Over time, your child will follow your lead.
2. Teach your child self-management routines that create happiness.
Regular exercise, healthy eating and meditation are all highly correlated with happiness levels. But you and your child may have your own, more personal strategies; for many people, music is an immediate mood lifter, for others a walk in nature always works.
3. Model a growth mindset and positive self-talk.
We all need a cheerleader to help us over life’s many hurdles. Who says we can’t be our own? In fact, who better? Research shows that happy people give themselves ongoing reassurance, acknowledgment, praise and pep talks. Talk to yourself like someone you love, aloud so your kids can hear you. Make sure your response to “failure” is “I just haven't figured this out yet” or "I just haven't practiced this enough yet.”
4. Cultivate optimism.
Optimism inoculates us against unhappiness. It’s true that some of us are born more optimistic than others, but we can all cultivate it. Read “how you can help your child become more optimistic.”
5. Help your child find joy in everyday things.
Studies show that people who notice the small miracles of daily life and allow themselves to be touched by them are happier. Daily life overflows with joyful occurrences: The show of the setting sun is no less astonishing for its daily repetition; the warmth of connection with the man at the newsstand who recognizes you and your child; the joy of finding a new book by a favorite author at the library; a letter from Grandma; the first crocuses of spring. Children learn by our example what's important in life.
As Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
And the old saying that laughter is the best medicine turns out to be true. The more we laugh, the happier we are! Laughter actually changes our body chemistry. So the next time you and your child want to shake off the doldrums, how about watching a Marx brothers movie?
6. Support your child to prioritize relationships.
Research shows that people who are happiest have more people in their lives and deeper relationships with those people. Teach your child that while relationships take work, they're worth it.
7. Help your child develop an attitude of gratitude.
“We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” — Frederick Keonig
Many people think they can't be grateful until they're happy, meaning until they have something to be grateful for. But look closely and you'll find that it's the opposite: People are happy because they are grateful. People who describe themselves as consciously cultivating gratefulness are rated as happier by those who know them, as well as by themselves.
Children don’t have a context for life, so they don’t know whether they are lucky or unlucky, only that their friend Brendan has more expensive sneakers. But there are many ways to help children learn to cultivate gratitude, which is the opposite of taking everything for granted. (Hint: Think modeling, not lecturing).
8. Accept all emotions.
Life is full of joy, but even for the happiest person life is also full of loss and pain, and we have daily reasons to grieve, large and small. Acknowledging our sad feelings isn't focusing on the negative, it's opening ourselves to the full range of being human. Accepting those uncomfortable sad feelings actually deepens our ability to take joy in our lives.
So, choosing to be happy doesn't mean repressing our feelings. It means acknowledging and honoring all our feelings, and letting ourselves feel them. That allows us to move through the feelings, so they start to dissolve.
With your child, simply empathizing with their upset feelings will allow them to feel them, and will help the feelings start to evaporate so they can move on. This is not a process that can be rushed, so give your child (or yourself) whatever time you need.
9. Help your child learn how to manage their moods.
Most people don’t know that they can choose to let bad moods go and consciously change their moods. Practice in doing this can really make us happier. You can practice this by:
- Monitoring your own moods;
- Allowing yourself to feel the emotions while you hold yourself with love;
- Noticing any negative thoughts that are giving rise to the emotions ("My child shouldn't be acting this way! They'll grow up to be a terrible person if they do this!”);
- Choosing a thought that makes you feel a little better (“My child is acting like a child because they're a child. They won't always be like this.”).
Of course, the hard part is choosing to change a bad mood. While you're in it, it's hard to take constructive action to change things. You don't have to go from desolate to cheerful. Just find a way to help yourself feel slightly better. That empowers you to actually face what's upsetting you and try to solve it. Sometimes just changing the way we're thinking about a situation really shifts things. So, instead of thinking, “How can they be nasty to me like that, with all I do for them?!” you might try, “It's normal for children to get angry at their parents. They're struggling right now and they need me to try to understand them.”
How to help your child with their moods? Some day when they're in a good mood, talk with them about strategies for getting into a better mood: What works for them? Share what works for you. Then, when they are in a bad mood, start by empathizing. After they've had some time to feel their upset, ask them if they want help to change their mood. Even if they're able to choose a better mood only one out of 10 times initially, they’ll soon start to notice how much better their life works when they do it.
10. Counteract the message that happiness can be bought.
As parents, we need to remember that we are not the only ones teaching our children about life. They get the constant media message that the goal of life is more money and more things. Ultimately, what we model and what we tell them will matter more, but we need to confront those destructive messages directly.
11. Help your child learn the joy of contribution.
Research shows that the pride of contributing to the betterment of society makes us happier, and it will make our children happier, too. Our job as parents is to find ways for our children to make a positive difference in the world so that they can enjoy and learn from this experience. So, it's worth it to give some thought and effort to family volunteer opportunities and modeling neighborly “helping out.”
And here’s a wonderful way to both shift your own mood to feel better while contributing to others. Try beaming love at the people around you while you and your child are walking down the street. This shifts your mood into an uplifted, loving state because as you “send” love, you feel love. We're always broadcasting what we feel without even intending to. Why not make it uplifting to those around us as well as ourselves?
“Happiness is a by-product of character. In people who are developing a strong character, there is a dramatically higher level of happiness than in those who live to chase after the next good time.” — Pat Holt and Grace Ketterman, M.D.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Aha! Parenting and was republished with permission.