Frank Schofield, superintendent, Logan City School District
As a parent, one of the things I want most for my children is for them to be happy. Research shows that happy children are more likely to become successful adults and are more likely to contribute to the happiness of others. As most parents do, my wife and I work hard to provide a happy home environment, and to help our children develop attitudes and behaviors that will contribute to their happiness. However, it sometimes feels like we are making things up as we go, and, although we give it our best effort, some days are more successful than others.
Fortunately, there is some helpful science that can guide us in our efforts. In her book Raising Happiness, Christine Carter, PhD, discusses research that shows that happiness is a learned behavior, a muscle that we can help our children build and maintain. She shares 10 things parents can do to help their children strengthen their “happiness muscles.” Here are four of them:
GET HAPPY YOURSELF
Extensive research has established a substantial link between mothers who feel depressed and “negative outcomes” in their children, such as acting out and other behavior problems. Parental depression actually seems to cause behavioral problems in children; it also makes our parenting less effective. So, the first step to raising happier children is finding what will help you be a happier parent. Whether it be showing more gratitude, engaging in tasks you are good at, or choosing to have an optimistic outlook on life, finding what increases your happiness will improve your ability to help your children find theirs.
FOCUS ON EFFORT, NOT PERFECTION
Parents who overemphasize achievement are more likely to have children with high levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse compared to other children.
Research is consistent: Parents should praise effort instead of natural ability. In research conducted by Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, children solved a jigsaw puzzle, after which they were given the opportunity to choose a second puzzle. Their second puzzle could either be of the same level of difficulty as the one they had just solved, or they could choose a harder one. The majority of the children who were praised for their intelligence wanted the easier puzzle; they didn’t want to risk making a mistake and losing their status as “smart.” On the other hand, more than 90% of children who had been praised for their effort instead of their ability chose a harder puzzle.
Why? Dr. Dweck explains, “When we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might — or might not — look.” This ability to not be preoccupied by how our abilities are perceived by others is a key to happiness.
Want to avoid dealing with a surly teenager? Then teach those pre-teens to look on the bright side. 0-year-olds who are taught how to think and interpret the world optimistically are half as prone to depression when they later go through puberty.
Dr. Carter says, “Optimism is so closely related to happiness that the two can practically be equated.” Compared to pessimists, optimists are:
• More successful at school, work, and athletics
• Healthier and live longer
• More satisfied with marriages (future)
• Less likely to deal with depression and anxiety
• Whether through a gratitude journal, telling positive stories about the challenges in our lives, or recognizing the challenges we don’t have, helping children develop optimism can lead to greater happiness.
EAT DINNER TOGETHER
Sometimes all science does is validate those things our grandparents knew all along. Yes, family dinner matters.
This simple tradition helps mold better children and makes them happier too. Studies show that children who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are more emotionally stable and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They get better grades in school. They have fewer depressive symptoms, particularly among adolescent girls. They are less likely to become obese or have an eating disorder, and they are better prepared for school. Many of the benefits of family mealtime can be enjoyed without sitting down together every night. Even the researchers at Columbia University, the ones responsible for much of the research on family dinner, say having joint meals as infrequently as once a week makes a difference.
At times, happiness can seem like an elusive goal. However, by consistently taking basic steps we can each find greater happiness for ourselves, and help our children develop habits that will lead to greater happiness now and as they grow into happy, successful adults.