When asked what they want most of their children, most parents reply that they just want them to be happy. It seems like a modest enough wish. But we all know that for some people, happiness is hard to find.
One way to make the wish come true for our children is to build a happiness habit from the start. Kids who learn how to be happy when they are young carry the lesson throughout their lives.
Families that are strong and happy have been found to share some key traits. If you want your kids to be happy — and to become happy adults — do your best to incorporate these five happiness habits into your daily life as a family:
- Commit. Alfred Adler, one of the founders of the field of psychology back in the early 1900s, was certain that the core need for human beings is to feel that they belong. That need is first filled by a strong sense of intercommitment within the family. When a couple truly commits to being together, through good times and bad, richer and poorer and in sickness and health, it creates a sense of security and peace that benefits everyone in the family. When trust is a given, both members of the couple can relax knowing that whatever problems may come, they are in it together. When children know they are wanted (even if perhaps at first they were a surprise), they feel safe and thrive. A committed family is one in which everyone knows that they are loved, important, and special to the others. They stick up for each other and stick together.
- Celebrate. Happy families celebrate each other. They don’t wait for “occasions.” They are alert for little ‘wins” in life and encourage each other in their efforts. They are enthusiastic fans on the bleachers or in the audience for each other’s games and plays and concerts or spelling bees or whatever. If a family member is involved, the rest of the clan is there to cheer them on. Even relatives who live at a distance show up regularly. Competition among family members is only of the friendliest sort. They are as interested in playing for the fun of it as in winning.
- Communicate. Happy families pay attention to each other. They put down their devices and put aside their projects to listen fully when someone wants to share. They ask each other about their day and are truly interested in the answer. They share their thoughts and feelings and respond thoughtfully and sensitively to the thoughts and feelings of others. They engage even the youngest members of the family in real conversation. Everyone feels valued and respected for their, ideas, insights and opinions. Kids who grow up in such families become understanding and communicative adults.
- Care. People in happy families genuinely care about each other and show it. Their interactions are more positive than negative or critical. In fact, Barbara Fredrickson, one of the key researchers in positive psychology, has found that when positive comments outnumber the negative on a three (or more) to one ratio, people are happier and more successful in life. Members of happy families reassure each other of their love through both words and actions. Little expressions of thoughtfulness are just part of the family routine. It is understood that the words of courtesy (please, thank you, excuse me) are an important way that people show respect and caring for each other. They spend time with each other, not because they have to but because they want to.
- Cuddle. It’s something that isn’t talked about anywhere near enough. People need to be petted, hugged, stroked and cuddled. Big hugs and small caresses are a big part of the nonverbal communication in happy families. They freely give and receive the warmth of affectionate physical contact. Even adolescents need it, despite their sometimes embarrassed protests. Sensitive parents are careful to keep up the hugging but also to remember to do it in such a way that doesn’t make teens uncomfortable.
Happiness isn’t an “extra” in life. It’s important. Happy people not only feel better, they actually are more successful in their personal and work lives. No, happiness doesn’t come from success. Sonja Lyubomirsky and her research team at the University of California have shown that it works the other way: Success comes from happiness.
Having a strong, happy family also builds resilience in our kids so they can manage the inevitable challenges of life. Jeanne and Jack Block at the University of California at Berkeley found that happy kids are more likely to develop the ability to adapt to change and bounce back from hard times.
And happy kids are healthy kids. Researchers Bethany Kok and Barbara Fredrickson have found that “recurrent momentary experiences of positive emotions appear to serve as nutrients for the human body.”