“Raising Happiness” by Christine Carter

Raising Happiness

I want my son to be smart and curious, do the right thing, have good manners, try new things – and be happy. I truly believe that we can choose to be happy. We can make a decision to look at the positive things in life and try not to dwell on the negative things. It’s something that I’d like to teach my son.

So I really appreciated the focus of Christine Carter’s book, “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents” (2010). Carter is a sociologist, commentator, and executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Upbeat and encouraging, “Raising Happiness” shows us how to “foster the skills, habits, and mindsets that will set the stage for a wide range of positive emotions in childhood and beyond” (page x).

“Raising Happiness” offers two insights for parents: First, instead of feeling guilt or angst over parenting mistakes or things out of our control, we need to focus on what we can do right. And second, happiness is a skill that we can teach our children.

Carter backs her recommendations and insights with scientific research (though I have to admit that I glossed over the studies). The sample conversations were helpful and practical, and so was the feeling that I am already doing things that build happiness.

Here are 10 simple steps to teaching happiness:

  1. Put on your oxygen mask first: Take care of yourself and your marriage first. Children’s happiness depends in part on the happiness of the people around them. So go out with friends, do things you love, and exercise.
  2. Build a village: Happiness is linked to strong relationships. Teach children how to make and keep friends (build rapport with eye contact and positive emotion), how to resolve conflicts (teach them to state what they want, express their feelings, and come up with solutions), and be kind. Encourage “other mothers” and “other fathers” (aunts, uncles, grandparents, close friends) to build lasting relationships with children.
  3. Expect effort and enjoyment, not perfection. Praise hard work, passion, and dedication instead of focusing on “natural” talent and achievement. Criticize behavior or performance (such as “Are you happy with how you did?” or “What can you do differently next time?”). Let children make mistakes; let them know it’s okay to fail.
  4. Choose gratitude, forgiveness, and optimism: Practice gratitude (keep a gratitude box or journal, write gratitude letters), forgiveness (ask kids to identify and talk about their feelings), and optimism (try to avoid pessimistic comments).
  5. Raise their emotional intelligence: Teach children how to express and cope with negative emotions. As a parent, be present, pay attention, be responsive, and be consistent. Induce happiness with smiles, laughter, music, and exercise; end the day on a positive note.
  6. Form happiness habits: Instead of threats and rewards, encourage good behavior with empathy, positive reasons (“Please brush your teeth so they will feel clean and healthy”), and choices (“It would be helpful if you…”). Change bad habits one at a time, taking small steps.
  7. Teach self-discipline: Be authoritative (strict yet warm). Teach children to self-regulate their behavior – give them a task so they won’t misbehave, distract them from something tempting, and have realistic expectations.
  8. Enjoy the present moment: Practice mindfulness (living in the present moment) through meditation, mindful parenting (notice what is happening and accept what is going on without judgment), play, and savoring experiences.
  9. Rig their environment for happiness: Limit daycare and preschool. “High-quality care makes your child more likely to have higher standardized math, reading, and memory scores, but only through the third grade” (page 155). “Center-based child care increases the chances that kids will be more disobedient and more aggressive and have more conflict with their teachers” (page 156). Curb kids’ materialism, limit TV time.
  10. Eat dinner together: Model healthy eating, social skills, and manners. Eating together can also expand their language and vocabulary, and create a family “ritual.”

If you’re ready to make happiness a priority in your life, visit Christine Carter’s website for free printable worksheets. I especially recommend the “Habit Tracker” worksheet that helps us take “turtle steps” to changing our habits.

“It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got,” sings Sheryl Crow in “Soak Up the Sun.” What does happiness mean to you? What are your happiness habits?

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