Monday, December 19, 2011

Teaching Your Child the Art of Happiness

What makes a happy child who grows into a happy adult?  For many parents, raising happy children is the holy grail of parenting success. Since happiness is a by-product of emotional health, this whole website is about helping you raise a happy child, from meeting your infant's need to be held to helping your kids develop optimism. But let's talk specifically about what makes humans happy.

 What do you need to be happy?  A winning lottery ticket? 

The latest research on happiness give us surprising news.  Happiness turns out to be less a result of luck and external circumstance than a product of 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 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 the habit of being happy, or the habit of being unhappy. 

Happiness is closely linked to three kinds of habits:

1.How we think and feel about the world, and therefore perceive our experiences.

2.Certain actions or habits, such as regular exercise, eating healthfully, meditating, even -- proven in study after study -- regularly smiling and laughing!

3.Character traits such as self-control, industry, fairness, 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 and the better we feel about ourselves, 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, 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 are automatic and serve a protective function.

How can you help your child begin to develop the habits that lead to happiness?

1. Teach your child constructive habits to control his mind and create happiness: managing our moods, positive self-talk, cultivating optimism, celebrating life, practicing gratitude, and appreciating our connected-ness to each other and the entire universe.

2. Teach your child the self-management habits 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. Cultivate fun. The old saying that laughter is the best medicine turns out to be true. The more we laugh, the happier we are! So the next time you and your child want to shake off the doldrums, how about a Marx brothers movie marathon?

And here’s a wonderful tool: smiling makes us happier, even when we 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, and that feedback loop uplifts everyone.

4. Help him learn how to manage his moods. Most people don’t know that they can choose to let bad moods go and consciously change their moods. But it’s usually pretty easy to figure out why you’re in a bad mood; the hard part is choosing to change it.

The first step is always to acknowledge the bad feelings, and what brought them on. Often, simply empathizing with those feelings will allow them to dissipate.

When your child’s in a good mood is a perfect time to comment on how wonderful it is to be in a good mood, and what a waste of precious time a bad mood can be. Talk with her about strategies for getting into a better mood: what works for her? Share what works for you.

Then, when she’s in a bad mood, help her notice what triggered it and how she might change it. 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 her life works when she does it

5. Model 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.

6. Cultivate optimism, it inoculates against unhappiness. It’s true that some of us are born more optimistic than others, but we can all cultivate it. Click here for "How you can help your child become more Optimistic".
7. 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, 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.

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." Children learn by our example what's important in life.

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"
-- Frederick Keonig

Many people think they can't be grateful until they're happy. 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, they don’t know whether they are lucky or unlucky, only that their friend Bobby 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. The most obvious is modeling it.

9. 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.

10. Leave room for Grief. Life, as the Buddha said, is full of suffering, and we have daily reasons to grieve. Acknowledging our sad feelings actually gives us more range in feeling our happy ones, and doesn't cause lingering unhappiness. Choosing to be happy doesn't mean repressing our feelings. It means acknowledging and honoring our feelings, and then letting them go. 

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 them to make a positive difference in the world so they can enjoy and learn from this experience.

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