The Best Gift to Give Your Kids

mom and daughter playing PAIDWhen you were little and the teacher asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, you surely didn’t answer “overwhelmed,” or “frustrated,” or “miserable!”  But these are the words that come up in my parenting classes when parents talk about their daily lives.

Of course, there are happy connecting moments as well, but the day-to-day grind of parenting can create a negative mood in the family that becomes habitual. If you have started to dread, more than you enjoy, your interactions with your children, then I invite you to consider this idea:  you have more choice between feeling miserable or feeling happy than you think…and it starts with your brain.

Emerging research shows that the brain is not as hard-wired as previously thought. We can learn to be happier. In fact, one of the most popular classes at Harvard University (taught by Dr. Ben-Shahar, author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment) is a Positive Psychology course in which students learn to train their brains to cultivate more happiness.  The underlying premise of positive psychology is that you can learn to be happier just as you can learn to solve math problems or to be proficient at a sport.

Your happiness is one of the best gifts you can give your children.
When parents are asked, “What do you want for your children?” one of the most common replies is, “I want my child to be happy.”  Well, where do you think they learn to be happy?  From watching you!  That’s why in her book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, Christine Carter’s Step #1 is…Get Happy Yourself.  She even cites studies that indicate how happy you are dramatically affects how happy and successful your kids are.

It’s worth the effort to raise your happiness quotient because it will impact your entire family.  If you’d like to train your brain for happiness, consider these ideas:

Decide that you want to be happier. When you make that decision, you start to notice choices for happiness that you may have missed before. Those choices may be small, such as lying down for 10 minutes when you’re tired rather than powering through a task, but you start to create an awareness and habit of seeking happiness that grows.

Acknowledge your feelings. When you feel overwhelmed or distressed, don’t make it worse by beating yourself up for being upset.  When you invite those feelings into your awareness and give them respect and attention, they usually begin to shift on their own, and you start to feel better.

Fake it till you make it.
 Ask yourself, how would a happy person act?  How would they walk? What would they say in this instance?  What would their face look like?  And then act, walk, talk and look like that.  Your mind takes cues from your body.  It’s hard to be upset when you’re walking with a spring in your step, whistling, with a smile on your face!  When you “act like a happy person” you’re laying down new neural connections that make it easier to tap into genuine happiness.

Celebrate success. Whether it’s the achievement of getting out the door on time this morning or a weekend when your children got along, take in the accomplishment, and give yourself and your children a pat on the back.

Seek meaning.
Happiness comes from doing something that gives us pleasure and meaning. If you’re short on pleasure and meaning in your life, find something to fill those needs. It could be a hobby, volunteering, taking a course, or allowing time to read a book or cook something tasty.

Express gratitude. Notice and be grateful for everything that makes your day better, from your child’s quick hug to your morning latte.  (I admit I get carried away with gratitude.  I’ve been known to express gratitude to my washer, dryer, dishwasher and other kitchen appliances.  But I am so grateful for the ease these items bring to my life!)

As you practice happiness and make it a habit, you’ll find yourself in a lovely upward spiral that will support you through challenging times. As Dr. Ben-Shahar writes in his book, “Happiness is not an end state, but rather something you work towards your whole life.  Thus, you can be happier each day.  Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”