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Can We Teach Ourselves (and Our Kids) to Be Happier?

Every morning, I start my day with a hot chai. In the summer, it is a particularly special treat. Instead of my usual vanilla chai, it is transformed into a half-coconut, half-vanilla chai. I realize it has too many calories and I should opt for sugar-free syrup (at least it is nonfat), but I consider it my one indulgence. My one addiction.

My morning pleasure. It makes me happy.

Happiness. Most of us want it. Many of us have it. The drive-thru window where I get my chai provides an interesting backdrop for a small study of the differences in people's levels of happiness.

There is one girl who is simply bubbling over with happiness each and every time I see her. It is genuine. She actually makes you happy. I would love to meet her parents.

Then there is another person whom you dread hearing on the speaker and seeing at the window. Nothing about him even whispers, "Hey, I'm a mostly happy guy."

With which person do you most identify?

There are two ways that we can think about happiness. We can consider things that come and go, but bring happiness to us when we experience them (for many, these include shopping, eating, and drinking). We can also consider something that I think of as our "way of being." We can have episodes of happiness or we can just simply be happy.

In studies of happiness and satisfaction, Americans are overall fairly happy people (although people in countries like Switzerland, Canada, and the Netherlands are happier). When asked what parents want for their children, they most often include happiness in their responses. How much of that is in your control? To what extent do you provide those shorter-lived episodes of happiness (giving in to buying a toy that is inevitably fun for the first day or two and then completely uninteresting the next) versus promote an environment that has in it those things that may provide longer-lived, "way-of-life" happiness?

Not much more than a century ago, people did not think about happiness; they thought primarily about survival. Life expectancies were shorter, infant mortality was high, medical technologies did not exist. Now, we think about happiness. Some of us do it regularly, even on a daily basis. I do. Right now, I'm thinking that I am happy I'm writing this blog sitting in my bed rather than in my office. Now I'm thinking that the flexibility of being a college professor makes me happy…

In any event, we all want to feel happy. We want to live as long as long as we can. We have medicine and technologies that reduce or eliminate our physical and mental ailments, and some are even designed to make us feel happier. We not only want to live longer, we want to look younger and feel younger. We think that will make us happier. And it just might…for a time. Until, we need another "fix" to be happy again. Many believe that money will bring them more happiness. That is largely untrue. Only for the poorest does money increase happiness. Once people's needs are met, more money does not magically make people happier. In fact, winning the lottery does not even make people happier shortly after their big win (some even report being less happy).

Psychology was traditionally interested in studying mental illness and things that would be considered "unhappy." However, more recently, there is more and more interest in happiness. After all, maybe if we understand happiness better, we can be happier...

So, what brings us happiness? There is evidence that some people have brain chemistry that makes them happier to begin with (so we might each have a different set point or "range" of potential happiness). It is also believed that being more optimistic is associated with being happier. I have read a lot about the connection between happiness and optimism, but still, I find I prepare for the worst and feel relieved when it doesn't happen—I suppose I am a hopeless pessimist who is destined to be only moderately happy! Those who are more spiritual tend to be happier. That doesn't have to mean formally practicing a religion; it involves believing in something bigger than yourself (personally, I do better on this one).

Having more control makes people happier (even babies who can choose to control the movement of a mobile over their cribs quickly learn to do so and cry when the control is taken away). Married people and those with larger social support networks are happier, too. (Also, the Weekly Spark today reminded me that chocolate may go a long way as well!)

The next time you think about saying yes to that toy at the store just to find momentary peace and a little happiness, think instead about promoting positive emotions in your children, building on your children's strengths, letting your children fail (so they learn the value of succeeding), and helping them to build independence and courage and kindness. When I spend a week on mental health in my adulthood and aging class, I always begin with the question, "if you could choose to never experience sadness again, would you want to?" Although I sometimes feel a pang of "yes, yes, me, I would choose it," my students inevitably say they would not choose it. If you cannot experience sadness (or failure or disappointment), then you cannot fully appreciate happiness. I have a magnet on the back of my car with an owl that says, "Let it Be." I use that as a reminder that I need to find more contentment and fight off those things that make me unhappy.

What is authentic happiness and how else can you be happier and help raise happier children? I suggest reading Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness to learn more. Not in the mood to read? At least take Seligman's happiness survey. See what you find out about yourself.

Not in the mood for Q&A? Then simply reflect on what matters in your life. Take stock. What about you can you build on to increase your happiness? And then, let it be contagious with your kids and those you see at a drive-thru window! How happy are you? Which type of happiness is more important to you? Would you rather have be generally happy or have things and experiences that bring happiness to your life?

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