Ask most parents and they'll say, I just want my kid to be happy. But how are they teaching their child to be happy?
That's right. I said teach. Maybe you think that happiness is something that either happens or it doesn't. Not so! Aren't you glad to hear that? Happiness is something you can develop in your child. Why? Because like learning to read or write or draw a picture or throw a ball--or become an effective parent!--much of happiness is built with specific skills. Sure. Some children are born with naturally sunnier dispositions. Does that mean you accept the grumpy kid "for who he is"? Well, no. No more so than you would accept a child who was struggling to read. In fact, it is with the child who is struggling with whom you sit down and break the task into ever smaller and manageable bits.
How do we teach happiness?
Let's look at some key practices that have come out of current positive psychology research.
1. HAPPINESS BRINGS SUCCESS.
As parents we need to rethink the idea that success brings happiness. Current research suggests strongly that the reverse is true: Happiness brings success. So lead your child towards happiness practices and let nature take its course.
2. NOTICE THE POSITIVE.
Is the glass half empty or half full? Help your child learn to see that the glass is half full by having her focus on the positives in her day. Model it by showing appreciation for the little things in life. Here are some positives from my day yesterday: Someone let me pull into traffic in front of him; the weather was the perfect temperature with a slight breeze; I got in an extra walk in the afternoon.
3. AMPLIFY THE POSITIVE.
Research shows that when we feel something, certain neuro pathways are excited. The cool part is that when we tell someone about what excited us, the SAME neuro pathways are re-excited. That's like getting two for one! So what does that mean? It means we need to actively share all our little joys. When I was able to pull into traffic easily because of someone's generosity, I told my friend, "I was afraid that I was going to be late but this really nice guy let me pull into traffic. I LOVE that!" Not only have I modeled finding the positive for my friend, I get to feel gushy all over again. It turns out, my brain doesn't know the difference between the actual event and the relived event!
4. DEVELOP A WIDE POSITIVE EMOTION VOCABULARY.
Research suggests that the richer vocabulary we have to draw on, the greater the variety of positive emotions we can feel. Partly, what you are doing is teaching a child to appreciate a wider scope of emotions as positive. Stuck with just the word "happy" a child develops a very narrow view of what he can count as happy. Teach him delighted, content, elated, or genial, and he can recognize when he is feeling all those things.
5. MODEL GRATITUDE.
Of all the positive emotions we can feel, the super power of them all is gratitude. In general, a life lived directed towards others is a happier one. Feeling and expressing gratitude supports our happiness in so many ways. It reduces stress which improves our health, it causes us to be less materialistic which gives us easier access to a spiritual life, and it improves our relationships by establishing a positive feedback loop.
The very best part of teaching our children happiness skills? By modeling the skills, we increase our own happiness! And if it is not enough for you to be happy, it will comfort you to know that happy people learn better, are more productive and are more resilient in the face of setbacks.