Providing our children with short bursts of ecstasy is easy - simply hand over a chocolate bar or the latest must-have toy. But eventually, that joy bubble pops. The chocolate is eaten, the toy becomes not so cool, boredom ensues. And then we realize that true happiness - the ability to maintain a love of life, to weather challenges with grace, to feel good about one's own essential being - can seem as elusive as a 3-year-old's mid-afternoon nap.
Make time for free play
You've heard it before: Free play - that is, unstructured time for a child to use his imagination without a coach or teacher breathing down his neck - is integral to development. But what you might not know is that it also helps children lay a foundation for future happiness.
Through free play, your child can discover what brings him joy - whether it's building a city of blocks, creating a family of stuffed animals, or designing a mural. In other words, he can connect with his true self. This ability to know what he likes (rather than what he should like) will serve him well when it's time to choose hobbies - or even a career.
Remember the mind-body connection
Turns out your mother was right when she said you needed your sleep, exercise, and healthful food. In fact, these are directly tied to mood. So make sure your child's bedtime is early enough so that she can get adequate rest, give her plenty of opportunity for exercise (outside play rather than a regimen of child aerobics classes), and go easy on the junk food and sugar.
Don't steal their problems
Your child struggles to reach the light switch, jumping up and down repeatedly. You may feel the impulse to just reach over and turn the light on for him. Instead, let him try to work it out.
The same goes for social problems. This doesn't mean you can't offer support and suggestions, but as hard as it is, resist the urge to solve all of your child's problems. Rather, look at challenges as gifts that can help him learn new skills. As child psychologist Carrie Masia-Warner puts it, "Children need to learn to tolerate some distress. Let them figure things out on their own, because it allows them to learn how to cope."
Wondering if your child is okay? Ask! This doesn't have to be complicated. It can be as simple as saying, "You seem a little down. Is there something you'd like to talk about?" And then listen, listen, listen. But - and this is important - if your child brushes you off, give her some space, and gently try again another time.
Not only do we want our kids to be happy, we want them to act happy. It can be embarrassing when your child sobs on the playground while everyone else is having fun. But if you tell him to put on a happy face, he may feel invalidated.
Instead, teach him to identify his feelings and express them with words (for example, "I'm angry because I didn't get a turn on the swings"). And let him know that it's okay to be unhappy sometimes. Ironically, being able to deal with hard feelings will lead to more genuine happiness down the road.