“I just want my kids to be happy."
We’ve all probably said or thought that at one time or another about the children in our lives. And it sounds like a huge task! How can we help kids be happy?
First, let’s look at the research behind happiness. Research shows that happiness can:
- Lower blood pressure.
- Build a strengthened immune system.
- Allow one to experience fewer aches and pains.
- Improve educational outcomes.
- Improve sleep.
- Increase life-expectancy.
Research tells that happiness is not the outcome of success, but rather fuels greater success, which then provides us greater happiness. That's a cycle we would all like to find ourselves in! Knowing that, how can we help our children experience happiness more often?
Here are seven ways to help kids cultivate happiness, even during difficult times:
- Create strong social connections. Children who have strong social connections are more likely to experience positive emotions associated with friendship. Although friendships aren't always easy, having shared experiences helps to create a sense of belonging and purpose. Some children may maintain friendships easily, and that's OK. Work with them to have the kind of connections that are most meaningful to them.
- Complete random acts of kindness. Being kind to others improves our mood. Show the children in your life the power of kindness by doing something for a family member, friend, neighbor or teacher. Have them join in or think of someone they would like to show kindness to. Check out these ideas on cultivating kindness.
- Use mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of stopping to think about the present moment. Many times, we are thinking about the future or past, about what we are missing out on or what we have to do next. Instead, try to stop and appreciate the moment you are in. This could be during dinner, while taking a walk outside or while reading a good story together. Help kids consider the positive things that are happening in that moment.
- Acknowledge good things. Sometimes, cultivating positivity is about stopping to think of the good things in our lives. It’s easy to get caught up in what's not going well. Try to identify the good things in your child's life, such as a caring family, great teacher, good friends, health, etc. It can even be small things, like completing a difficult school assignment or finding a new favorite song. The more you help point these out for your child(ren), the more they will learn to find good things on their own.
- Set goals. Research shows having purpose and meaning in life help improve our happiness. When we have personal goals to work toward, we feel motivated to persevere and work toward that goal. Happiness comes from reaching steps along the way or from reaching the goal itself. Help children set short-, medium- and long-term goals, and then set up steps along the way. The older they are, the more children can think to the future about what they want to accomplish. For younger children, setting a goal for the next 30 minutes and then celebrating when they achieve it will give them an immediate boost of positive emotions.
- The connection between physical and mental health is very well established. Exercise helps release certain endorphins in the brain which elevate your mood starting shortly after you finish your exercise. And you don't necessarily have to engage in high intensity activities to feel the effect. 30 minutes of moderate exercise, like a brisk walk, slow jog, family bike ride or anything else that gets your heart rate elevated, will produce these positive effects. When the whole family participates, it can have an even greater effect!
- Tell a joke. There's a reason why a good comedy show, funny movie or hilarious joke can be just the thing to help when we are feeling down. Researchers have shown that smiling and laughing communicate to your brain to experience positive emotions. Telling silly jokes, watching a funny family-friendly show or just doing something that makes us smile will help to improve your mood. Dust off those joke books!
You may be thinking, "What about long-term happiness? What are strategies to increase our happiness over time?"
The truth is, long-term happiness is mostly down to our habits, both physical and cognitive, and the way we perceive our world. Even if we know everything there is to know about someone's environment, job or family, we have a hard time predicting how often they will feel happy. A better predictor of happiness is how their brain perceives and processes the world them.
You might also notice there aren't any suggestions about getting a raise at work, being the top student in your class or champion in your sport. It turns out, happy people tend to do things and think in ways that help them experience more positive emotions no matter what is going on in the world around them. Certainly, there are experiences and environments that make this more difficult, but some of the most recognized world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and Malala Yousafzai show that happiness can persist even through the most difficult times and experiences.
We can teach our children to consistently engage in these seven activities, creating a pattern for them to follow into adulthood. Happy people create their own happiness!
Come on, let’s get happy! Here are three activities you and your family can do to bring a little sunshine into your day.
- A Little of Jar of Happiness: All you need for this activity is paper, pen and a jar. Each night at the dinner table, you and your family write down one thing that’s made you happy today to encourage positivity. Put it in the jar and at the end of the week, take out all the paper and read your answers out loud.
- Happiness Certificate: Download this Happiness Certificate (or use it as inspiration to make your own) and give it to someone you made you happy today.
- Coloring Pages: Practice mindfulness by coloring and thinking about the things that bring you happiness.