“10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…Happy New Year!” My family celebrated the start of 2023 with sparkling apple juice toasts, hugs, and noisemakers. We welcome the new year and its new opportunities for living the good life that we all crave. And we hope that happiness will find us along the way.
Yet research suggests that we don’t have to wait for happiness to happen on its own. Instead, we can promote happiness for ourselves and our children, drawing from the work of psychologist Martin Seligman.
Seligman has found that five things affect happiness: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Each of these elements can be influenced by choices that children (and parents/caregivers) make.
Positive emotions. These emotions include feelings of pleasure, contentment, and satisfaction, as well as friendliness, cheerfulness, compassion, and gratitude. They come from engaging in interesting activities and interactions. They also arise when we recall such activities during times of stress or sadness. We help children increase their happiness when we encourage them to identify and pursue their interests. We also support greater happiness when we prompt them to remember prior happy experiences to help offset a bad day.
Engagement. Getting lost in an activity also promotes happiness. Notice what absorbs children’s attention and then make time and space for them to immerse themselves in those activities. Affirm the value of deep engagement for developing talents and virtues. Acknowledge the ways in which these activities build self-confidence and personal satisfaction.
Relationships. Positive relationships are one of the most powerful predictors of happiness. Having people with whom we can share experiences and debate new ideas adds joy and pleasure to our lives. Invite children to identify people around them that they want to get to know better. Coach them in relationship-building skills like friendliness, hospitality, and gratitude. Talk about things that you do to support and improve your relationships, such as showing consideration, offering support, and asking questions about others’ interests.
Meaning. Happiness is also linked to living out our values and working toward big goals. Encourage kids to find a cause that matters to them and set goals for how they will support it. Perhaps they want to volunteer at an animal shelter once a month or join a conservation group working to clean up local waterways. Or they might collect books for a neighborhood little library to support literacy. Whatever their cause, provide tangible family support (time, transportation, funds, emotional reinforcement) for these meaningful activities.
Accomplishment. In addition to setting and striving toward goals, children’s happiness also depends on developing a sense of accomplishment. Mark their achievements with congratulations and celebrate together when they complete a meaningful project. Keep the focus on personal success through simple rituals, such as a cheer, a touchdown-style dance, or a meal built around a favorite food. (Too much whoopla can lead kids to work for rewards rather than towards a sense of accomplishment.) Build a family culture of encouraging one another by pointing to past successes as inspiration when a new challenge proves difficult.