The Happiness Habit

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This article was first published in Smallish magazine October 2017

Ask any parent what they want for their child and the answer is almost always “to be happy”. Compared to this one ultimate goal, others all pale into insignificance. Many of us would pick it over a string of glittering A-grades – after all, mental contentment is a state we spend most of our lives chasing, to varying degrees of success. But can we really teach our children to be happy? Therein lies the dilemma.

It’s easy to get confused about our role as parents. If we believe it’s our role to make our children happy, we can do that immediately with instant gratification by buying them the latest gadget. I could make my teen happy by buying her the new iPhone 7 and I’ll receive the irresistible reaction of: “You’re the best mummy in the world. I love you so much.”

We live in a society where childhood is scripted from an early age. We put our child’s name down for a nursery or school before birth. We start to believe that if our children are to be successful and happy in the long term, they need to get into the right school, achieve good grades, pass exams, get into the best university and obtain key qualifications. But, of course, you can have all of that and still not be happy because happiness is a by-product of strong emotional wellbeing.

It’s too easy to confuse being happy as a quality or characteristic or state of being, but happiness is a habit that needs to be developed over time and the key influencers of whether a child develops this habit are us, the parents.

Here are seven secrets to raising happy children:

What are the things that bring you joy? Is it the smell and feel of fresh linen on your bed or the froth on your cappuccino? Children learn from us what’s important in life, so spending time looking at a ladybird or going to the library to get a new book can be a joyful event depending on our reaction.

Although my children are now young adults, throughout their childhood I cultivated an atmosphere of fun and laughter and, at times, doing silly things. So whether it was donning a wetsuit and diving off the pier in the icy North Sea waters off the east coast of Scotland or undertaking the Rickshaw Run (not for the faint-hearted) with my kids last year – we drove 4,000km in the equivalent of a seven-horse power lawn mower – no matter what age, we can have fun and laugh.

Friendships can be lovely – affirming, supportive and nurturing. Good friends can bring a child out of themselves and challenge them to try things they wouldn’t on their own – climb a tree, try tricks on a skateboard, join a choir or Brownies. Happier people have more people in their lives, so ensure your children see you making friends and being a good friend to others.

There can be an almost irresistible urge to buy things for our children in order to make them happy, but we all know instant material gratification is always short- lived and ends up with our children being dissatisfied and wanting more. You need to counteract the constant media message that we need more things in order to satisfy ourselves.

There is no substitute for fresh air and fun. Studies show sunshine, fresh air and physical activity all encourage good moods and reduce tendencies towards depression. It’s good for mental health and great for the soul.

Caring for a pet really is a childhood rite of passage. There is much joy and pleasure in caring for another living thing as well as learning responsibility. The life-long memories formed are rich as a pet becomes an integral part of the family. Pets give unconditional love and I witness first-hand the joy my therapy dog, Bonnie, brings to children at the autistic children’s home. The joy and happiness a pet can bring is incomparable to anything else and I will always recall the squeals of delight when my daughter was present at the birth of Bonnie’s eight puppies.

Teaching your children gratitude is a very simple way to increase the happiness quotient. A good practice to develop is to talk to your kids at bedtime before the lights go out to encourage them to tell you at least three things they’re grateful for. You can also share with them your gratitudes and if you can write them down and capture them in indelible ink, even better. It forms a permanent record and re-reading the gratitude journal can help change the mood to a more positive one.

Elaine Halligan is London Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that enables parents to get the best out of their children. Her book " My Child's Different" is to be published Autumn 2018