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.