For some of us more than others, happiness can be elusive. In the plate dropped unceremoniously, we see a lost dinner rather than a moment of comic relief. A traffic jam is lost time rather than time gained with the self, or the kids or the spouse.
“Choose happiness,” I’m always telling my son when he is inclined to see a mishap where I wish he would see an opportunity. But to what extent is this possible? And am I providing a model for a happiness-centered approach to life?
Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with positive living expert Diane Lang, author of the 2010 book “Creating Balance and Finding Happiness” and a therapist practicing positive psychology. A relatively new branch begun by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that studies what makes us happy and resilient, the approach’s foundational principle is that we can take active steps to make ourselves happier.
“60 percent of happiness is genetic, and 40 percent is nurtured,” Lang noted. “So you have 40 percent control over your happiness.”
While the factors that increase happiness don’t all work for every person, Lang shared five key steps she recommends for decreasing stress and increasing happiness among parents and their children. Lang emphasized that these steps apply to “typical stressed-out families” in the absence of psychiatric or other conditions that require medical intervention.
1. Happy parents equal happy kids
Children, Lang said, are visual learners, meaning they learn more from what we do than what we say, and “emotions and moods are contagious.” So she asks parents to ask themselves, What would make me the happiest? For women considering whether to stay home or work, for example, when the option is available, figure out what will make you happiest and follow that path to the fullest extent it is possible.
“If you’re home full-time but miserable,” Lang said, “you aren’t sharing quality time with your children,” which ultimately provides a negative model. If you work but spend weekends and evenings pursuing activities that you enjoy together, you can still build strong relationships and communication with your children.
2. Make sure your basic needs are being met
One of the first things Lang does with her clients is have them keep a “journal of truth” for a week, recording their sleeping, eating, and water drinking habits. Sleeping for six hours or less for three nights in a row has the same effect cognitively as not sleeping for 24 hours, causing decreased concentration and focus. Not eating well or drinking enough water compounds the problem by causing fatigue.
“You will be more resilient if you’re in good health,” Lang said. “If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not instilling that value for your kids either.”
For those who feel stressed out, anxious, and/or unbalanced, she suggested a simple measure that is both natural and free: walking. “Walking for 30 minutes four times a week is equivalent to an anti-anxiety pill,” Lang explained. Because exercise produces endorphins and reduces stress hormones, it provides what she called “the happiness rush.” For even greater effect, she suggested, if possible, walking in nature and near water, both of which have a calming effect. To increase the potency of the benefit, walk with a friend since socialization is the number one happiness factor.
3. How many negative statements did I make today?
“We sometimes do not realize how negative we are,” Lang said, so she recommends noticing how often we comment on the negative. One negative observation can create its own domino effect, she added, leading to another and another and another until all we see is problems. In this way, “I lost my keys” devolves into “I hate my life,” and children learn from our behavior, adopting the same negative approach to life. We may also not realize, Lang cautioned, how negative we are toward ourselves (“My hair looks awful!” or “I can’t do anything right!”), which children further absorb.
4. What kind of non-verbals am I exhibiting?
Children have been shown to pick up non-verbal cues such as facial expressions as early as six months old. Negative actions and words, like eye rolling and snapping, feed into each other. “Your thoughts change your actions,” Lang asserted, “but a lot of parents aren’t aware of that.” So she encourages parents to pause and reflect before acting, to catch themselves and practice control over instinctive negative responses.
5. Did I show love today?
Isolation and loneliness are two of the biggest factors in depression, and socialization is the number one happiness factor, so spending face-time with people with whom we feel comfortable increases our happiness. But also important is enacting love.
“We always say it,” Lang said, “but did we show it?” Showing love to children and spouses through gestures and touch provide important visual cues and reinforcement. Random acts of kindness, Lang added, can also boost happiness, with the effect lasting anywhere from 24 – 72 hours. She noted that these acts do not have to cost money but can be as simple as helping someone put their groceries in the car, giving up a seat to a pregnant woman, or helping someone clean up a spilled cup of coffee.
We all know that choosing what will make us happy and following that path is rarely as simple as it sounds, and pressure and responsibilities can pull us in different directions. But how we choose to approach challenges, what we do in the face of them, and who we choose to surround ourselves with do impact the quality and texture of our lives. Which reminds me of something else I often tell my son: “One thing you can control is your attitude.” It’s good for me to be reminded too.