Time and again when I ask parents what they wish for their children they respond with “I just want them to be happy”. But how exactly does one do that? The truth is that happiness is a way of being but not a constant. To be happy you must also experience sadness and sometimes as parents we have a hard time tolerating that fact. In any case lets take some time and see what the research tell us about how to be happy.
The primary finding of happiness research is that those who are happy take risks, allow themselves discomfort and feel any and all emotion. So, applied to parenting, the mere fact of having an infant should make you happy. What is riskier than taking on the responsibility of maintaining another human being alive? What is more uncomfortable than attempting to function in the world with 4 or less hours of sleep? What generates a worse feeling than hearing our newborn cry? That is why parenting, although highly painful, gives us so much joy. This is a wonderful “reframing” of those moments in infant parenting that seem awful but that according to research, make us happier.
The happiness research also tells us that when we celebrate our friend’s, lover’s and children’s accomplishments, we increase our feelings of happiness. Most of us spend our days telling our children how well they did or how proud we are they got through that FSA. Just like taking the risk of becoming a parent can bring happiness, so can your praise and pride in your child bring happiness. The child further benefits from the positive reinforcement, which more times than not works best when attempting to parent away difficult behavior.
A study found curiosity about others and observations of the people around and world around us brought happiness. The participants that continually left their comfort zones and stepped into curious behavior were more prone to express gratitude and fulfillment than those participants who chose to follow their usual and safer paths to happiness. This is great news for parents of toddlers. The world, as seen through the eyes of a toddler, is mesmerizing. Something as simple as the grocery aisle is fascinating kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and smells. Take the time to follow the toddler in their curiosity. Narrate what they see and touch and challenge yourself to see it through their eyes. It will help them with esteem, language, and emotional growth but for you the adult, you can have a moment of being curious about the world, which according to researchers will promote happiness.
Another key researchers found to being happy is to avoid getting stuck on the details and striving too hard for perfection. I, for one, am guilty of seeing so much detail in my day-to-day that at times it causes frustration rather than what I like to consider effective mobility. The researchers make a nice point about how this attention to detail sometimes goes awry. They describe being upset with your partner and being able to see the tiny movements in their face or their body that then we describe as being “wrong or judgmental” because in the moment we are upset. However, when all things are copacetic we ignore a slight or phrase under the guise that it was just for the moment.
Parenthood offers opportunities to look past the details and enjoy the moment. The first time our preschooler decides to pick out their clothes and wear every color of the rainbow. This is a parenting moment for honoring the child and their achievement and giving up on the detail that he just dressed himself like “Punky Brewster” and you are going to see your in-laws. The moment your teenage girl tells you all about how happy she is that she finally met her “first true love” and you happen to also hear she met him while at a friend’s house you did not know she was spending time with and that they were alone with boys. The detail of her omitting being at this friend’s house is less important than the amazing truth that she has chosen you, her parent, to speak about her first true love. Honor those fleeting moments. Forgive yourself the imperfection I agree with the researchers: the ocean view is a lot more interesting than a speck of sand.
Research also found that those who are able to balance pleasure and purpose tend to lean on the happy side of the spectrum. Now this one for the parent group is highly difficult, confusing and more often than not, the reason many parents shame themselves. It is true that spending an afternoon at the park and ice cream with our child is pleasurable. However, it is not the type of pleasure that most adults would describe first when asked what would you like to do for pleasurable moment if you had all the money, and time in the world. So as parents how do we find this balance for happiness? The purpose for most of us is to get our children thriving and growing. A lot of parents hold that in mind and plow through their day only fulfilling that emotion. Many times, when a mommy is sitting in my office in tears I find myself asking her, what about your self-care? What about your hopes and dreams? Your children need to watch their parent dream, take care of themselves, and have goals so that then they can model the behavior and as the researchers proved, also give happiness.
The one finding that makes this mental health professional most happy is the idea that those who are happy are prone to be flexible and vulnerable with their emotional expression. This is the concept we speak about the most at my parenting center as it pertains to parenting. It is important to help build your children’s emotional intelligence, which will make you and your children happier. So how does a parent accomplish this daunting task? It is important to have emotional intelligence yourself or at least begin to understand how certain emotions trigger you. Most of us tend to avoid one or two emotions and when we see or experience them in our children we quickly act for them to “cut it out”. The difficulty with this response is that children need experience, understand, and have a solution when experiencing emotion. This task they can only do with the assistance of an adult. They will continue to need this assistance in varying degrees until you drop them off in college. We don’t have to be perfect parents, but we do have to begin to understand what emotions do to us, what meaning we have given them, and how/what we do to feel better. Then we can do the same for our children and finally be happier in our day to day.
But what exactly is happiness. Happy is the feeling. The one we experience when we smile, laugh, and spend time doing something we enjoy. Yet happiness is less tangible. Happiness is a state of being. It is a state based on our choices, thoughts, and surroundings. The best news of all is that if we can know for ourselves these choices, thoughts and surroundings then we can share that knowledge with our children. Then, in turn, your child will know happiness.