For many parents, raising happy children is the Bhagwat Gita of parenting success. But too often, we think happiness is about those fleeting moments of getting what you want. Lasting happiness is 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 him or her.
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 a habit.
It may seem odd to have happiness being spoken as a habit. But it’s likely that by the time we’re adults, we have settled into this habit of often being happy or the habit of being largely unhappy.
Happiness is closely linked to three kinds of habits:
How we think and feel about the world, and therefore consider our experiences.
Certain actions or habits, such as regular exercise, eating healthfully, meditating, contacting other people, regularly smiling and laughing!
Character traits such as self-control, industry, fairness, caring about others, citizenship, wisdom, courage, leadership, and honesty.
In practice, these character traits are just habits; tendencies to act in certain ways when confronted with certain kinds of situations. And certainly, it makes sense that the more we exhibit these traits, the better our lives work, we feel good about ourselves, and the more meaning we find in life, so happier we are.
Some of the habits that create happiness are clear, how our Grandmother told us we ought to live, work hard, value relationships with other people, keep our bodies healthy, manage our money responsibly, contribute to our community.
Others are more personal habits of self-management that keep us away from unhappiness and create joy in our lives, such as managing our moods and being an optimist.
But once we make such habits part of our lives, they become automatic and serve a protective function.
How can you help your child to develop the habits that lead to happiness?
1. Teach your child constructive mental habits that create happiness.
Managing our moods, positive self-talk, being an optimist, celebrating life, practicing gratitude, and appreciating our connectedness to each other and the entire universe. Incorporate these into your life together so you model them regularly, talk about using them, and your child will copy.
2. Teach your child self-management routines that create happiness.
Exercising regularly, healthy eating, and meditation are all highly correlated with happiness levels. But you and your child may have your own, more personal means; for many people, music is an immediate mood lifter, for others a walk in a garden always works.
3. Cultivate fun.
The old saying that laughter is the best medicine turns out to be true. The more we laugh, the happier we are! It changes our body chemistry. So the next time you and your child want to shake off the doldrums, how about a Disney movie?
And here’s a wonderful tool: smiling makes us happier, even if we initially force it. The feedback from our facial muscles informs us that we’re happy and immediately improves our mood. Not to mention the moods of those around us, so that feedback loop makes everyone happy.
4. Model positive self-talk.
We all need a cheerleader to help us over life’s many obstacles. Who says we can’t be our own self? 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.
5. Cultivate optimism…
…it inoculates against unhappiness. Some of us are indeed born more optimistic than others, but we can all build it.
6. Help your child find joy in everyday things.
We see that people who notice the small miracles of daily life and are touched by them are happier. Daily life overflows with joyful instances: The show of the setting sun, 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 phone call from Grandmother. The first phloxes of spring.
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.”
7. Support your child to prioritize relationships.
It is believed that the happiest people have more people in their lives and deeper relationships with those people. Teach your child that while relationships take work, they’re worth it.
8. Help your child develop 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.”
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 developing gratefulness are rated as happier, by everyone.
There are many ways to help children learn to be grateful, which is the opposite of taking everything for granted.
9. Accept all emotions.
Life is full of joy, but even for the happiest person life is also full of loss and pain, and daily we have new 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 depends on our ability to take joy in our lives.
So choosing to be happy doesn’t mean suppressing 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.
Simply empathizing with your child’s upset feelings will allow her to feel them, and will help the feelings start to dissipate so she can move on. This is not a process that we can rush into, so give your child (or yourself) whatever time you need.
10. Help him learn how to manage his moods.
Most people don’t know that they can choose to let go of bad moods and consciously change their moods. But practice in doing this can make us happier. You can practice this by:
Monitoring your moods.
Allow yourself to feel the emotions while you hold yourself with love.
Notice any negative thoughts that are giving rise to emotions. (“My child shouldn’t be acting this way! He’ll grow up to be a terrible person if he does this!”)
How to help your child with her moods? Sometimes when she’s in a joyous mood, talk with her about strategies for getting into a better mood: what works for her? Share the methods you adopt. Then, when she’s in a bad mood, start by empathizing. After she’s had some time to feel upset, ask her if she wants help to change her mood. Even if she’s able to choose a better mood only one out of ten times initially, she’ll soon start to notice how much better she feels works when she does it.
11. Counteract the message that happiness can be bought.
As parents, we need to remember that children are being fed information from other sources and we are not the only ones teaching them 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.
12. Help your child learn the joy of contribution.
Our job as parents is to find ways for them to make a positive difference in the world so they can enjoy and learn from this experience and always live happily.
“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, MD