How Happiness Really Works for Parents and Kids

Why has happiness alluded so many people? It’s because we think we know what will lead to happiness, but psychological scientists show we are often off base. If we’re off base much of the time, are we leading our kids down the right path? We all want our kids to be happy, so let’s make sure we know the right way to go about it.

Most of us believe positive events, wealth, fame, and beauty will lead to lasting happiness. We get messages to this effect everyday in the media. However, these things affect a shockingly small percentage of our actual level of happiness.

According to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, the truth is that money does bring some happiness, but it’s only a little bit for a short time, not a lot of happiness for a long time. One study showed that the richest Americans are only slightly happier than blue collar workers.

This fleeting happiness is due to a concept called hedonic habituation, which basically means that we get used to change quickly, and what once felt novel quickly becomes the norm. You can probably think of a time you felt thrilled initially and then quickly got used to it, i.e. moving to a new house, getting a promotion, a pay raise, or a makeover. It feels great at first, and then after a relatively short time you adapt. In a classic study in the 1970’s tracking lottery winners, less than a year after receiving their windfall, most winners felt no happier than the average Joe.

Research also shows that life circumstances; rich or poor, married or single, beautiful or ordinary, actually have little bearing on our level of happiness. Scientists estimate that a shockingly low 10% of our happiness is derived from these sorts of circumstances.

Happiness is like a pie

Lyubomirsky suggests we think of our happiness like a pie chart made of three different sources.

-50% of our happiness is due to the set point we are born with. We all have a natural default setting in our soul, somewhere between a sunny or rainy disposition.

-10% of our happiness is due to life’s circumstances. Research shows that life circumstances have a very minor affect on our day-to-day happiness.

-40% of our happiness can be controlled by choosing our behavior and daily intentional activities. What we do and what we think can greatly affect our level of day-to-day happiness. This is the piece of the pie we have the power to change.

The 40% factor

We can control the 40% through intentional activities that need to become habit, like going to the gym. Incorporating new happiness habits may feel challenging to both us and our kids at first, feel a little Pollyanna, or be met by eye rolls and “Really, Mom?” but becoming happier has far reaching affects beyond just feeling good.

Studies show that happy people are more sociable and energetic, more charitable and cooperative, better liked by others, more productive in their jobs, earn more money, are more resilient in the face of adversity, are more flexible and creative, more likely to get and stay married, have better developed networks of friends, have stronger immune systems, are physically healthier and live longer.

Habits of happy people

Here is a sample of observations from Lyubomirsky and other researchers about what happy people think and do:

-They invest time in family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
-They express gratitude regularly
-They are quick to offer a helping hand
-They think optimistically about their future
-They savor life’s little pleasures in the present moment
-They prioritize weekly and even daily exercise
-They are deeply committed to lifelong goals
-They are strong and resilient in the face of life’s many challenges

If/when thinking is misguided

Notice that all of these activities can be done in the here and now. Lyubomirsky suggests we are not doing ourselves any favors by thinking we’ll be happy if or when something happens in the future, i.e. I’ll be happy when I get a new job or I’ll be happy if we move. What we think will make us happy and what actually does are often quite different. It turns out a large percentage of happiness comes as a result of daily habits, not random events happening by chance in the future.

Happiness habits that work

Like a seed that grows in the right soil, you can create the right environment for happiness to flourish in your life and in your family. The key according to Lyubomirsky is to consciously choose how you behave, what you think, and to set meaningful goals. I guess you are not only what you eat but also what you think.

However, there is no one magic strategy. Much like a diet or exercise, success depends on finding what works for you. Here are the evidenced-based happiness-boosting strategies Lyubomirsky shares in her book. Pick 3 or 4 and see what fits best for you and your family.

1. Express gratitude: This can be done with kids at the dinner table or before bed. Name 3 things you feel grateful for today.

2. Cultivate optimism: When talking with kids, help them look on the bright side or choose the most optimistic conclusion. Also try asking the ‘magic wand’ question to help them imagine their best possible future,i.e. “If you could wave a magic wand and have everthing be perfect in 5 years, how would things be?”

3. Don’t overthink things and avoid social comparisons: Use strategies such as distraction to avoid dwelling on problems and having your kids compare themselves to others.

4. Practice acts of kindness: Do nice things for friends and strangers alike, on a regular basis.

5. Nurture relationships: Pick a relationship in need of strengthening and invest time and energy in it. It could be with someone in the family or in a friendship.

6. Develop coping strategies: Practice ways to deal with stressful events.

7. Learn to forgive: Practice letting go of anger and resentment toward people who have done you wrong.

8. Invest time in activities that you love so much that you barely notice the passing of time, that are challenging and absorbing, and bring a sense of ‘flow.’ Support your kids in identifying and investing time in their interests and passions.

9. Savor life’s joys: Take time to relish life’s small pleasures; a hug, a meal, a smile. Replay them in your mind through thinking, writing, drawing, and discussing with others.

10. Commit to goals: Pick 1-3 significant meaningful goals and invest the effort in making them happen.

11. Practice spirituality: Become more involved in spiritual places, activities, and books.

12. Take care of your body: Engage regularly in exercise, meditation, and smiling.

Here are the 4 I’m choosing to do with my family:

1. Expressing gratitude
2. Acts of kindness
3. Nurturing relationships
4. Exercise at least 3 times a week

You hold the power to increasing 40% of your happiness. It’s easy to infer that these same strategies will work for your kids.

Which of these strategies will you take on? Let me know in the comments below or email me at

FYI, if you’re having trouble deciding which strategies are the best fit for you, Lyubomirsky offers a handy exercise in The How of Happiness to help you decide.

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