I have yet to meet a parent who doesn't want his or her kids to be happy. But parents' ideas of how to help kids be happy is often contrary to what decades' worth of studies show really works to promote well-being.
To summarize this important research, happiness has three main dimensions, or "flavors":
Pleasure is the kind of happiness many parents pursue for themselves and their children. The focus of pleasure is gratifying desires and preferences — for example, having delicious food, fun experiences, and beautiful things. We try to pick summer camps our kids will "like," offer them meals they "like," organize playdates with kids they "like," and so on. Over time, these repeated interactions can send kids the message that happiness is found in feeling good, having fun, and getting what they want.
While pleasure and gratification can provide a short-term happiness boost, it doesn't last long. If we want our kids to have the best chance of experiencing a happy and fulfilling life, then we must teach them how to balance their preferences with what's important, good, and meaningful. Research into the foundations of happiness shows that it's the other two qualities of activities that promote long-term happiness: engagement and meaning.
Engagement is the creative application of our skills to meet challenges. These activities often result in "flow," a state of total absorption in what we are doing. Music and sports are common examples, but engagement can result from any activity that requires us to work at our full capacity, matching our skills to the challenge at hand.
Importantly, the activities most likely to create engagement are not always "fun" or pleasurable to do, at least at the outset. Like learning to play an instrument or program a computer, these types of activities are often complex and require us to develop our skills through practice and persistence.
Meaning, also defined as "service," is using our abilities to contribute to the greater good. When we strive for meaning, we are focused on pursuits that have a broader impact and purpose than our own personal goals and desires. Caring and compassion are an integral part of meaningful projects.
The bottom line? Engagement and meaning make us happier and more satisfied with life than pleasure does, and meaning contributes to the happiness of others as well. Engagement and meaning are happiness habits.
Another key happiness habit is gratitude. Gratitude is counting your blessings, whatever they may be. Practicing gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression and improves mental, emotional, and physical health. According to Robert Emmons, a prominent gratitude researcher, gratitude also strengthens relationships — the number one contributor to happiness — "because it requires us to see how we've been supported and affirmed by other people."
A fourth key happiness habit that is often overlooked as such is exercise. Exercise is a physical activity with innumerable benefits for our mental health. People who exercise are not just healthier, they are also happier. Exercise has such a profound effect on physical and mental health that it may be the single most important thing we can do to promote our well-being.
Other lists of happiness habits might also include forgiveness, mindfulness, optimism, and kindness, but I've prioritized these four — engagement, meaning, gratitude, and exercise — because they promote other happiness habits and because they are balanced between making the most of ourselves (engagement and exercise) and also focusing on our relationships and communities (gratitude and meaning).
How do you ensure your kids develop these four key happiness habits? Here are my favorite tips (but also remember that if you don't also model these habits in your own life, it's less likely that your children will embrace them):
Does your child have a hobby or other activity that she loses herself in (i.e., a flow activity)? Can this activity become increasingly challenging as your child's skills improve? These two qualities — a sense of timelessness while doing the activity and the possibility for an increasing level of challenge to match growing skills — are the hallmarks of engaging activities.
For young children, play is a flow activity. Make sure their daily schedule allows for free and unstructured playtime. For older children (age 7 and up), help your child identify another engaging activity that she can learn and grow with, if she hasn't already shown an interest in something on her own. Music and sports are good starting points, but consider any activity that requires skill and provides increasing challenge, such as art, gardening, or carpentry. Be sure to keep making time for play, too.
Encourage your child to think about the world around her. Volunteering is one excellent way to cultivate meaning, but any activity that demonstrates caring and kindness will do. This could be picking up litter in your neighborhood, donating food to a local shelter, or writing a letter to your local politician to urge action on a pressing social issue.
Keep in mind that the point of volunteering and other meaningful activities is not to build a college résumé — if your child perceives that the ultimate goal of serving others is to enhance her college application, this changes the activity from serving others to being self-serving.
One popular method of helping children develop the habit of gratitude is by incorporating it into a family meal every day. At dinner, for example, you could go around the table and ask each family member to specify something he or she was grateful for that day (e.g., "I’m grateful that the sun was out today and I got to eat lunch outside" or "I'm grateful that Dad packed me my favorite snack for school today").
Some other ways to cultivate gratitude are thanking someone (in person or in a letter), keeping a gratitude journal, and praying.
Exercise should be a part of your and your children's lives every day, but it does not have to involve a gym or even be called exercise. For kids, exercise should be playing. If kids are moving their bodies and getting a little sweaty, that counts. The CDC recommends at least 60 minutes of exercise a day for children and adolescents.
Since there are only so many hours in a day, prioritize sleep and exercise or play over screen time or other activities.
Keep TVs and other screens on the periphery of family life; if screens are easily accessible (e.g., on a huge wall in the family room) or part of daily family life (e.g., the TV goes on during, or right after, dinner every night) then screens are likely to take up time better spent talking, playing, reading, and so on. Use screen time deliberately and purposefully. For example, you could have family movie night on Fridays or a video game competition on the weekend after a family hike.