Three Ways to Raise Happy People

Surprising tips on setting kiddos up for a lifetime of happiness … and success (In that order).Surprising tips on setting kiddos up for a lifetime of happiness … and success (In that order).Parents go to great lengths--from Baby Einstein DVDs to cutthroat pre-school applications--in order to give their kids a leg up in our competitive world. Ensuring our children grow into "successful" adults often feels (along with keeping the littles, you know, alive and intact) like our primary job description. We want this, ostensibly, because we want our kids to be happy. But a mountain of recent scientific research on the relationship between success and happiness indicates that we've been approaching it all wrong. Which is to say, backwards.

I just finished reading The Happiness Advantage, by a leading expert on the subject, Shawn Achor (He developed Harvard's famous "happiness course" and delivers lectures to business executives worldwide). The book is mostly about happiness in the workplace; despite our collective belief that if we work hard--at all costs--and become successful, we will then be happy. In fact, happier people meet with more success as a byproduct of their outlooks and dispositions. As Achor told me, "A decade of research can be summed up like this: happiness is a choice, happiness spreads, and happiness is an advantage. Happiness is the fuel of success, not merely the result of it. If your success rates rise, happiness remains the same. If you raise happiness by increasing optimism, social connection, and changing how you view stress, every single educational and business outcome improves."

So what does this have to do with parenting? Everything. We all want our kids to be happy, among other things. But helping them to be happy people will enable everything else to fall into place. So we can focus on happiness. Full stop. Isn't that awesome news?

I'm not talking about giving our kids everything they want all the time, or attempting to spare them the full range of human emotion. I'm talking about helping them develop a sense of optimism and a habit of happiness that will serve them, consciously and unconsciously, throughout their lives. How, you ask? I read Achor's book through a parenting lens, and pulled out three key points for raising happy people:

1. Use Your Words

Let's be real. Unhappiness happens. But Achor writes about the "undoing effect" that positive emotions have on our bodies and minds in the face of negative ones. Basically, even a few encouraging words can "undo" the effects--both emotional and physiological--of negativity. As parents, we're in a perfect position to lift our children up and teach them to respond positively in the face of negative events or circumstances, or to simply provide frequent encouragement to our kiddos throughout the day. The language we use--and, more importantly, the way we say what we say--is crucial.

Related: Why Are Americans Raising Unhappy Babies?

My preschooler, Kaspar, recently stayed home from school with a bad cough. Instead of referring to the day as a "sick day," I called it a "get well day." All day. The reasons behind his staying home and the actions we were taking to help him recover didn't change, but I chose language that focused on the positive outcome--rather than the negative cause. And instead of lamenting how terrible he felt, Kaspar spent the day happily coloring, and following my instructions to drink obscene amounts of fluids, without (much) push-back. A small choice of words made a big difference in how we both felt, and Kaspar recovered more quickly, I'm convinced, than he would have if we'd focused on his feeling gross.

2. Make Work Into Play

We all have to do things we don't want to in life (boring meetings, dishes, etc.), but if we approach those things with a positive objective, or as connected to what's more meaningful to us, we won't get bogged down by negativity. How we look at what we do matters. Achor's research shows that we don't have to be martyrs to be successful in life, so why not make our work more fun?

I try to put this into practice with Kaspar by literally turning work into play. If I ask him to clean up his toys, he'll refuse. But if I suggest we come up with a game to make it more fun--or, better yet, ask him for ideas on how it can be a game (he might suggest that we race, or see who can clean up the most toys in a certain amount of time)--he loves it. Over time, he's also learned to stop and consider how he can approach things he doesn't want to do in a way that will be enjoyable, rather than complaining (This makes for a much happier mommy, too).

3. Raise the Baseline

Scientists used to think our happiness was genetically wired but have since discovered that this isn't so. There are proven ways to elevate our own baseline happiness levels. These include: meditation, finding something to look forward to, committing conscious acts of kindness, infusing positivity into our surroundings, exercising, spending money on experiences (rather than things), and using our strengths (i.e. being who we are).

Because we control so much of our kids' surroundings, schedules and lives, we can take a look at each item on this list and find a way to work on it for, and with, them. Focus on one item each week, or even each month: can you develop a meditation practice with your children? (Click here for a good one) Is there a trip coming up that you can talk about and plan for together? Why not bring some flowers--and happiness--to an elderly neighbor? Bear the above list in mind as you make decisions about how to spend your money or organize your time so that you and your children become happier people. This is a worthy end in itself, but if you're concerned with outcomes, you can trust what the research clearly shows: success, and all kinds of other good things, will naturally follow where happiness leads.

How do you help your children to develop happy habits?

- By Taylor Hengen Newman

For the 8 joys of raising lively girls, visit BabyZone!

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