I believe we’re looking at happiness all wrong. The first step is understanding what happiness is and perhaps even more importantly, what it is not.
As my colleague, Dr. Vanessa Buote, a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology, puts it, “One of the misconceptions about happiness is that happiness is being cheerful, joyous, and content all the time; always having a smile on your face. It’s not. Being happy and leading rich lives is about taking the good with the bad, and learning how to reframe the negative experiences to take the positive aspects out of them.”
In other words, we’re not happy when we’re chasing happiness. We’re happiest when we’re not thinking about it. We’re happy when we’re enjoying the present moment because we’re lost in a meaningful project, or helping someone who needs us. Both experiences can be found frequently in moments of parenting.
Guest post by Jennifer Moss
Jennifer is the cofounder of Plasticity Labs and author of a new book, Unlocking Happiness at Work, that shares tips on how to increase happiness at work and in life. You can find it online at Amazon or Indigo, or check with your local bookstore and ask if they have it in stock.
Read Jennifer’s other article on How to foster gratitude and contentment in your kids.
How the happiness model applies to parents
The happiness model that resonates with most scientists, researchers, and people in general starts with Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist and former president of the American Psychology Association.
Dr. Seligman is responsible for defining the term “PERMA” which is at the root of many positive psychology research projects around the world. The acronym stands for the five elements essential to lasting contentment.
P: Positive Emotion
Peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, and love fall into this category. When we take time to focus on the present moment, it creates a deeper, more ingrained memory. When we start to string those mindful moments together, it can change the neural wiring of the brain.
Since a child is rapidly wiring his or her brain during their formative years, it’s critical to engage mindfulness early in life. The next time your child tells you to look at a snail, or a butterfly, stop and take it all in. One of the toughest challenges for busy parents is slowing down. But, remember that the more time you spend being mindful, the healthier it is for yours and your child’s brain.
It can be incredibly rewarding to lose ourselves to a task or project that provides us with a sense of “disappeared time” because we are so highly engaged. When we are passionate about something we’re engrossed in, it can create a sense of “flow” or “bliss”. This feeling can occur in our extracurricular pursuits from dancing to exercising to gardening.
At home, bring your entire family into passion projects so it can be a bonding experience while exercising your “flow”. As often as possible, try to find inspiration in your work. As the saying goes, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
People who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not. Since the majority of us will spend 70% of our waking hours at work, it becomes even more important for us to balance the time we spend at work and at home facilitating healthy, positive relationships. Research shows that a happier spouse will make us 8% happier, and a happy neighbour will make us a whopping 34% happier (Christakis, Fowler; 2008).
Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves. No matter how it is expressed, we all need meaning in our lives. For some people, this is could be taking on a family cause or helping people in their community; for others it could be participating in traditions and routines together. When we build in meaning at home for our kids, it creates a deeper sense of accomplishment when goals are reached. That feeling of contributing positively leads to a happier, healthier life for kids and adults alike.
To feel significant life satisfaction, we must strive to better ourselves in some way. We tend to only focus on the home runs or the big goals instead of celebrating the small wins that take us to those big goals. When we break down the effort, we can feel like we’re on the path to success, versus pursuing a distant goal.
Nurturing your personal wellness to increase the well-being of your child is an exceptional goal, so why not look at making a two-minute effort to be grateful as a family a daily win. We go around the table every night and ask each other what made you smile today. This will lead you and your family down a path of happiness and fulfillment.
I liken models to recipes. Just like a recipe can’t guarantee your bread will rise, following a happiness theory can’t guarantee you will be happy. However, if we remember that happiness is not about chasing pleasure, but rather, actively engaging in long-term, sustainable life goals that include daily investments in positive work, activities, and relationships, we’re likely to unlock happiness along the way.