Can happiness be taught? A question that I’m sure lurks in the back of most parents’ minds, and actually isn’t happiness something we are all striving for, something we’d all like more of in our lives? A question that parents over on our Facebook page have told me that they are interested in exploring. But isn’t happiness dependent on many things that are out of our control? Such as personal life circumstances, genetics, the people around us? Can we really teach someone to be happy? And is this really a healthy goal to be striving for? So many questions! Read on to find out what we mean by ‘happiness’ and whether there are some actions that you can take, along with your family, to bring more happiness into your lives.
What is happiness?
Firstly, it’s important that we’re clear on what we mean by ‘happiness’ because it can mean different things to different people. So that we’re all on the same page, I’ll explain what the scientists have discovered. When I mention happiness from now on, I’m not talking about a fleeting feeling of happiness when, for example, you receive a surprise gift or your Gran buys you that toy car you’ve been wanting for ages. What I mean is more of a general feeling of wellbeing, an even-keeled mood. As defined by Action for Happiness: “Happiness is about our lives as a whole: it includes the fluctuating feelings we experience everyday but also our overall satisfaction with life.”
What is not happiness?
It makes sense to explain here what happiness is NOT, as it will help to clarify in our minds what it actually is. Happiness is not about feeling good all of the time. We all have emotions, it’s part of being human and these fluctuate throughout the day. That ecstatic feeling of having a new toy, that I’m sure we can all remember, is not what we’re striving for every day. It would be unreasonable to put those expectations onto ourselves, and it could also get expensive! On top of all that, what goes up, must come down. Happiness is also not being rich and being able to afford everything. The scientists have discovered that as long as you live above the poverty line, the amount of money you have plays no big part in your overall happiness. Even if you suddenly get a £10,000/year raise, you’ll probably be pretty excited to begin with, but then you’ll adjust your budget and expectations and go back to your original levels of happiness. If your children were let loose in a toy shop for Christmas and told they can have everything they want, they’d be pretty giddy for a while but would soon get used to the new toys and would probably find newer ones to ask for. And finally, happiness is not a final destination. “I’ll be happy when I’ve moved to a bigger house.” “I’ll be happy when that annoying person at work gets a new job.” “I’ll be happy when I get to sit next to my best friend at school.”
The science of happiness
Over the past decade or so, scientists have started to do research into what makes people thrive. Looking at what thoughts, actions and behaviours make us happier in our relationships, at work and more fulfilled at the end of the day…what makes us flourish? They have discovered that whilst genetics do play a role (50%) and life circumstances also affect happiness (10%), a whopping 40% of overall happiness can be controlled by our thoughts, actions and behaviours. Which means there are certain actions you can take which could lead you to feeling 40% happier in your daily life! Pretty amazing, hey?! The science of happiness is also known as positive psychology and it’s something that I love introducing the kids to as part of our yoga and mindfulness sessions. I often hear stories of how the practices have helped them in their daily lives, to boost their overall emotional and mental wellbeing and satisfaction with life.
Developing the skills of happiness
Happiness is a practice. That 40% that we’re talking about, that potential boost to our happiness and to that of our kids’, it’s something we can work on, it’s a choice we can make. That 40% is something we will have to remind ourselves of at first, but after a while it’ll become second nature. Like all skills, happiness is something we will have to learn (unless we’re lucky enough to be genetically wired for high levels of happiness). Like learning any new skill, it takes time for the neural pathways to fire up, for them to light up and become embedded in the brain. We may slip back into old habits at first, but once the new practices become a normal part of life, off we go!
Take action for happiness!
OK, so here are some suggestions of happiness practices that you may wish to try out with your children. They are simple enough to do and once you get practising, they don’t take up much time and can slot into your day. After a while they will become second nature…
What are you grateful for?
At the end of the day, at a time when you can listen and give your kids your full attention – dinner time or bed time could be good – everyone is invited to share one thing that they are grateful for that day or in that moment. At first this may be tricky but after a few tries, and with you leading with your examples, they will get into the swing of things. If they can’t think of anything, that’s fine, simply acknowledging that is enough. Or sometimes they might struggle to think of something and you might suggest: “Are you grateful that school is finished for the day?” Maybe you feel grateful that Sammie was wagging his tail and ready for a hug when you came through the door?” Practising gratitude is an amazing way to boost happiness. It changes our perspective and starts us looking for the good in each day. Our brains have an in-built tendency to focus on the bad stuff as a survival instinct, but with some practise, we can turn this around and we start to notice more and more things to be grateful for. Evidence is starting to emerge showing how gratitude changes the brain and can benefit people who struggle with anxiety and other mental health issues as well.
Focus on the good
This is a similar idea to the gratitude practise above, but instead each week, whilst sitting around the dinner table or before we switch on the TV, we each think of three good things that have happened that week. We share our stories of good things that happened and listen to each other’s experiences. Again, this practice can seem tricky when we first start and it might be challenging to think of three things some weeks. It’s helpful to remember that your list can include small things such as noticing the warmth of the sun on your face, somebody helping out with the washing up one night or a friend sticking up for you in the playground. And similar to practising gratitude, once you get into it, it becomes easier and easier, until you’ll be struggling to keep the list down to just three things!
Take more action
There are more actions you can take such as being kind to others or practising mindfulness. The Action for Happiness website is a great resource and I can highly recommend their 8-week programme, ‘exploring what matters’. I’ll be sharing more happiness practices over the next few months on this blog and if you’d like to receive these directly into your inbox, why not sign up to receive newsletters? Click here and scroll down to the sign-up form.
Jane Bennett, Sparkling Kids founder, can usually be found practising yoga and mindfulness with children and young people at schools, nurseries and charities throughout Wigan and St Helens in the North West of England. The power of simple movement and breath to bring calm, focus and peace to the children she works with, never ceases to amaze her. When not on her yoga mat or meditation cushion, she may also be found in the woods, the hills or in a river! To find out more about Sparkling Kids, click here.