Before you read any further, close your eyes and think about this question. What do you want most for your child? I think you’ll agree that essentially what all parents desire is happiness for the little people they love most in the world.
If you answered health, wealth and love, don’t forget that these are all tied into the notion of happiness. But what exactly is happiness? How do we create happy children? How do we, in fact, know that our kids are truly happy?
What is happiness?
Happiness is an emotion we all hope to feel as much as possible. But we often struggle to define exactly what happiness is, because it’s an emotional state associated with many other emotional states, such as contentment, satisfaction, love and fulfilment. In fact, any positive emotional state is associated with happiness.
Are people happy when their positive emotions simply outweigh the negative? The pleasure principle theory states that humans instinctively maximise pleasure and minimise pain. But current thinking is that human emotion is far more complicated than that. After all, people can be unhappy and still laugh at a joke. To clarify the situation, William McDougall, a social psychologist from Harvard, promotes the theory of feel-good happiness and value-based happiness.
Feel-good happiness derives from activities, such as enjoying a good meal, laughing with friends or playing with your children. It is enjoyment in the moment and is short-lived. Value-based happiness represents a more spiritual satisfaction, occurring when you live according to the values you admire. This more enduring type of happiness gives your life meaning and purpose.
Dr Stephen Reiss researched this enduring type of happiness with a study of 6000 people. He developed a psychological test called the Reiss Profile to measure 16 desires that humans have – curiosity, acceptance, order, physical activity, honour, power, independence, social contact, family, status, idealism, vengeance, romance, eating, saving and tranquillity.
In short, it’s how you prioritise these values and try to live your life according to them that increases value-based happiness.
Children and Happiness
What’s obvious from the research is that you, as a parent, cannot gift wrap happiness and present it to your child. Material gifts will only lead to temporary feel-good happiness – not the longer lasting kind that means so much. As psychiatrist Edward Hallowell explains in The childhood roots of adult happiness, spoilt kids don’t acquire the valuable psychological tools they need to develop into happy adults. As children develop from babies their needs change, so as they age our responsibility as parents shifts to ways in which we can give them a deeper level of happiness that simple physical comfort and love.
How do we know that our children are happy?
Every parent should know their child well enough to be able to keep track of their positive versus negative emotions Signs of positive emotions include laughter, smiles, affection, curiosity and interest in things your child enjoys, Negative emotions include signs of distress, fear and anger. Irritation is often missed as a symptom of unhappiness. Children can display outward signs of sadness such as crying, tantrums and anger, or be more inward by withdrawing from their environments and relationships.
Obviously if your child is naturally introverted and shy, don’t panic. The key is to monitor changes in his behaviour and mood. If you’re concerned, discuss your fears with other involved adults, such as teachers, grandparents and friends’ parents. If you still feel worried, seek help, because it must be remembered that children do get depressed.
Helping your child be happy
Although you can’t guarantee your child’s happiness, here are some guidelines that can help you give him the foundation on which to build happiness:
Health – on a very basic level, happiness and psychological well being need a healthy body to foster a healthy mind. Aim for balance in your child’s life. Try not to arrange too many activities and ensure he gets enough sleep, since a tired child isn’t a happy child. Maintain other healthy habits such as a healthy diet and minimising sugar to guard against mood swings caused by sugar lows. Exercise is vital as it promotes health and works off negative emotions.
Fun – It’s so easy to forget to have fun. As mentioned earlier, feel-good happiness derives more from positive experience than material things. Researchers from the University of Colorado and Cornell University in the USA have shown that happy experiences become a part of who we are and the way we see ourselves. So play with your child. Angela, Mum to 2 kids says that nothing creates as much joy on her children’s faces as when she stops what she’s busy with and joins in their game.
Friendships – Your child’s friends create happiness as they are catalysts for fun, good experiences and provide emotional and social support. Maintaining relationships also requires the formulation of a whole range of psychological skills that are used throughout life and add to your child’s chances for happiness as an adult.
Finding your child’s talent – Every child has a natural passion or talent. It may be tricky to find, but your child does have a talent in something that you can nurture. Research shows how the happiness found in mastering a skill using persistence and discipline and in turn succeeding, contributes to feel-good and value-based happiness. Praise your child for all his accomplishments, even if they seem trivial.
Communication – Make time to stop and talk. To know what your child is experiencing and feeling in his world you must engage with him. By communicating you are opening up brain pathways for the expression of negative emotions too,.so your child can develop an outlet.
Resilience – Although it’s tough, allow your child to struggle. Parents hate to see their child even slightly frustrated or unhappy. Children need to develop coping strategies such as problem-solving, decision making and conflict resolution. This leads to resilience, which has been shown in recent research to foster psychological well being and happiness in adults.
A positive attitude – This means maintaining a positive outlook for yourself and your family, which takes hard work. Be a role mode, as your child will pick up on your mood and imitate your emotional styles. Neuro-psychological research proves that copying other people’s emotional states activates the same brain pathways in the ‘copycats’. Strive for calmness, happiness and positivity. Those who see the world as a happy place and expect good things are happy.
Meaning in life– show your child the greater meaning in life. Involve yourselves and your family in church, or community projects such as charities. Helping others and being aware of social issues will create a sense of meaning, purpose and selflessness in your child.
Happiness is the holy grail of life for us all. Your child cannot be happy 24 hours a day, which wouldn’t be psychologically healthy for him anyway, but you can help him become happier and more balanced, putting him on the road to adult happiness.
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