Teaching children to be happy

Making small changes to your daily routine can have a massive impact on your children'shappiness levels, says Psychologies' parenting expert Ilona Boniwell


Teaching children to be happy

When talking to parents, I paraphrase a question asked by the pioneer of positive psychology, Martin Seligman: ‘What would you most want for your children?’ Most parents answer ‘happiness’. Yet, we often communicate to our kids that happiness can be reached via shortcuts such as TV, fast food and buying things. But there are other shortcuts that really do have an impact on our children’s happiness. A review of up-to-date evidence suggests that the following five actions can make a real difference:

  • Exercise Regular physical activity is the best happiness habit you can instil. How often do you go for a walk or a bike ride together? Do you have family gardening days? Discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your family’s needs. If your kids want to play football, rugby, tennis, golf or any sport for that matter, keep it going – even if some persuasion might be necessary.
  • Sleep People who sleep an average of eight hours per night have better psychological and subjective wellbeing, fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, more positive relations with others and feel more in control of their lives. While we are usually vigilant with younger kids, we often let our teenagers’ bedtimes slip out of control. Personal modelling and vigilance are key – if you go to bed at 2am or if you let the tablet and phone screens ‘sleep’ in your teen’s bedroom, don’t be surprised to find them up into the early hours.
  • Smile Research has confirmed what Darwin suggested in the 1870s; that whether you’re furrowing your brow or giving a big cheesy grin, showing your emotions physically intensifies them. Smiling is a habit, so encouraging your children to smile when meeting people or when joining family for dinner will bring both immediate (for you!) and long-term (for them!) benefits. I’ve given up on our moody teenage boys recently, but my husband is more resilient. His slightly mocking: ‘Hello Andrew, it’s nice to see you tonight, hope you are happy to see us as well’, seems to produce the desired effect!
  • Relate Connecting with people around us is the basis of our happiness. One of the fundamental characteristics of humanity is the need to belong. When this need is satisfied, we feel positive emotions, while long-lasting periods of loneliness can bring us down. So, how do you transmit this to your kids? And do you actually need to do anything, given that they spend time with their friends already? Yes, you do, because although friends are important during teenagehood, having just one kind of relationship can make young people vulnerable. Recognising and supporting healthy relationships is central to improving young people’s physical and mental health. A parent’s role is to support and encourage a wide range of relationships – with family, teachers, role-models, neighbours and others in the local community.
  • Appreciate Appreciating the little things that go well is one of the simplest, but most effective, means to increase our happiness. At the end of each day, you could ask your children to talk about three good things that happened. These can be significant or relatively unimportant events.

Photograph: iStock

More inspiration

Read: about teaching happiness skills, Seligman, M. et al.Positive Education: positive psychology and classroom interventions
Learn: about positive psychology by taking an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at the Anglia Ruskin University