Discovering Happiness: What’s All The Fuss About?

by Hilary Cooper, Ph.D.

May 19, 2023 — Uncategorized

Discovering Happiness: What’s All The Fuss About? I am admittedly a sucker for smiley faces- and rainbows and unicorns give me a dopamine hit that is more satisfying than it should be. But recently, I have felt ambivalent about the concept of happiness and how it is represented in “wellness” and “parenting” media. Like other nebulous expectations such as “success” or “being good”, happiness is one of those goals that is too broad and intangible to guide effective living or parenting. I have worked in the field of psychology for over thirty five years and I have rarely seen such a frenzy as the happiness literature that is pervasive in media, self help, and even academia. What is going on? The most recent cover of Time magazine (I still read full-fledged paper publications) exuberantly features “The Secrets of Happiness Experts” and The New York Times is currently devoting an entire wellness section on “How To Be Happy”.

I humbly doubt that my thoughts on happiness rival those featured in these esteemed publications, but I am confident that after treating thousands of patients of all ages, my perspective is unique and helpful. In the late 80’s and 90’s, I started my career working with children and adults infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. This was a time when the outcome of this disease was not at all hopeful. And yet, I distinctly remember our team of medical and support professionals making the important decision to celebrate with our patients every chance we got. Our philosophy was that to be fully present with our patients during times of sorrow, we also had to share with them moments of joy. It may sound strange, but to experience happiness within the context of indescribable pain represents the best part of human beings. Since then I have wondered about my own relationship with happiness.

There is very little agreement about the scientific definition of happiness, even amongst happiness researchers. Happiness scientists agree on one point, that personal circumstances and material wealth impact our happiness much less than we expect. Other than those living in extreme poverty, most of us can cultivate the skills that allow us to notice and feel contentment. Time and time again, studies show that meaningful connections to others, to yourself, and to activities that you care about, are what make people happy.

Don’t be misled by the marketing from the “happiness” cottage industry:- there isn’t a surefire formula that results in happiness. And, as humans, our DNA is not programmed to be happy all the time. Human evolution would not have taken place if we had been content all the time. Sustained happiness is a result of hard work, self-awareness, the ability to connect with others, and the capacity to train your thoughts to notice the positives. Authentic happiness occurs when there is an accumulation of moments that fill us with a sense of joy (a more intense emotion), feelings of satisfaction (kind of in the middle of the emotions spectrum) and contentment (more subtle emotion). Negative emotions will naturally always exist. Optimally, when difficult situations occur, we learn to manage negative feelings in a more skillful way so that we can get back to a state of equilibrium that allows us to have the capacity to be happy.

My interest in the topic of happiness is not merely professional or theoretical. I grew up in a family that made me feel destined to lead an unhappy and complicated life. My parents did the best they could despite alcoholism and mental illness, but as a child, loneliness, fear, and confusion made me feel different from my peers. The Dialectic Behavior Therapy concept of “radical acceptance” has dramatically changed my association with happiness. Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) was founded by Marsha Linehan and is essentially a collection of skills that lead patients to live a life worth living. Radical Acceptance encourages us to look at past negative events head on and without judgment. Denying that difficult or traumatic experiences have happened does not make us happy. Inherent to radical acceptance is the notion that what happened to us was likely not our fault, but it is unfortunately our responsibility to learn how to live with it. This concept has been powerful in my happiness journey. Only recently have I begun to lean into my own happiness. By accepting my past, I no longer work to change it which has freed up my time and energy to work on my present.

I am a faithful believer in a handful of legitimate happiness gurus. Happiness is being studied and contemplated by some of the most brilliant minds: from the Dalai Lama to Martin Seligman, the co-founder of Positive Psychology (the scientific study of optimal human functioning). Seligman has spent his invaluable career studying the elements that humans can cultivate in their lives to bring meaningful change. He is the author of many best selling books including, Authentic Happiness, Learned Optimism, and The Optimistic Child. The Dalai Lama has also centered much of his philosophy and daily practice on the meaning of happiness. He asserts that the goal of human life is to be happy. He concludes that “The ultimate source of happiness is a mental feeling of joy, and not a wealth of material goods. The sensory pleasure material things provide is generally short-lived. Such satisfaction does little to allay anxiety and fear. On the other hand, mental joy sustains itself.”

Seligman and his colleagues at The University of Pennsylvania suggest that there are five elements of a meaningful life: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. Dr. Christine Carter and Nurse Rona Renner of The Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Berkeley refer to a similar set of skills to foster in ourselves and our children; optimism, compassion, inspiration/awe, love, and regulating negative emotions. And, Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale, the host of the podcast, The Happiness Lab and the teacher of the free Coursera course, “The Science of Happiness” has suggested that to be happy we must 1) Get Social 2) Give Thanks 3) Be in the Moment 4) Rest and Move 5) Be Kind. If this all sounds easier said than done, you are not alone!

Let’s get real. It is far from easy to maintain happiness in our daily lives. Sonja Lyubomirsky is a distinguished professor/researcher of psychology at the University of California Riverside, the author of The How of Happiness (2007) and The Myths of Happiness (2013 ), and an admitted neighsayer to all things smiley face and rainbow. Her lab discovered that there is a genetic component to our subjective experience of happiness. While we all have the capacity to feel happy, some of us experience joy and pleasure at a more subdued level than others. This point is important, especially to parents who can benefit from knowing that it is ok if their childrens’ subjective levels of happiness vary. The lack of a clear definition of happiness and the expectation of raising happy children is making us, as parents, feel inadequate and guilty. In my own life, I have chosen to define happiness as a baseline sense of contentment, an ability to handle the ups and downs of life, and an appreciation of moments of joy.

So, how can you support your family –and yourself — to develop the habits that lead to happiness? The following is a list of my personal hit parade of happiness skills (or as my kids might say, my “hot take”) :

1) Focus On the Basics

Without the non-negotiable basic requirements of life like food and sleep, no human can build a reliable association with happiness. In fact, in 2017 researchers at the University of Melbourne conducted a Happiness Survey with 47,000 Australian children. It found that sleep was the biggest indicator of happiness—getting enough sleep made children twice as likely to report feeling happy most of the time.

  • Make bedtime as early as possible from the start. You can always make bedtime later as your kids get older but you can rarely convince children to go to bed earlier.
  • Make sure that there is always at least a half hour buffer before bed for quiet, unplugged time. Progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery stories are really helpful with young children.
  • Make breakfast mandatory even if it includes foods that are not traditionally thought of as a morning meal.
  • Choose at least one night a week for a slower paced, sit down family meal.

2) An Emotional Repertoire

Emotional regulation is vital to a sense of well being. Some children are naturally more inclined to efficiently and quickly metabolize difficult emotions, while others need to be taught explicit skills to do so. Children whose temperament appears to be more pessimistic than their peers might need to be taught the skills necessary to weather tough emotions. But, the less easily soothed child has the same capacity to reach their optimal level of happiness as the child who is easier to soothe. It is helpful to all children if their parents strive to embrace a full range of emotions. Do not fear your child’s feelings of sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, and shame. They are potentially important signals that something needs our attention. We want to teach our children that they can handle the more difficult emotions in order to appreciate the positive ones.

  • Model healthy ways to cope with negative emotions. Speak out loud when you are frustrated and show your children novel ways to cope. For example, if your kids are asking you to solve a problem and are all speaking at once say “guys, my feelings are getting really big and my brain is getting overheated. I am going to take a quick break and splash some cold water on my face and I will be back in a second.”
  • Have a vast and varied feelings repertoire. Labeling emotions is the first step to dealing with them. Use resources like Diane Alber’s “A Little Spot” books, activities and toys to talk about emotions in a non-threatening way. Let your children absorb the information organically and label emotions when they are not in the midst of a meltdown.
  • My biggest pet peeve is when I hear adults ask kids to “use your words” in the heat of an emotional moment. If you are pretty sure that you and your child share a common feelings vocabulary, it is most helpful to label feelings for them when they are in the midst of a big emotional moment. This takes a lot of pressure off and helps your child to feel understood. If you have picked the wrong emotion, they will tell you.

3) Do Not Confuse Achievement With Happiness

Yale Professor, Laurie Santos has studied happiness in her students and her research suggests that “as high school GPA goes up, your overall well-being goes down.”Angela Duckworth wrote the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and is the founder of the Character Lab at The University of Pennsylvania. (TMI, she also happens to be my psychology geek professional crush). She and Adam Grant, a psychologist, author, podcaster, and professor at The Wharton School of Business have suggested that grit is a result of doing things that align with your goals and values. Sticking with something that has meaning to you is more effective than forcing yourself to do something you do not like. Of course, sometimes in the real world, this is not always possible, but we can encourage our children to be cognizant of how they spend their time.

  • Your Kids’ Activities Are Less Important than You Think. The specific activity your child decides to do is not as important as how it fits into their goals and values.
  • Many of us force our children to stick with an activity, even if they are unhappy. Unless your child is a serial quitter, it is ok to ask them if they would like to try a new activity once a class or season is over. For example, Adam Grant has suggested that if your child has tried the violin and really hates it, ask him/her/them to explore other forms of creative expression. In this case, it is the goal and value of creative expression that should be our focus. If your family value is physical activity, let your child find a way of moving their body that works for them.
  • Comparison and Perfectionism are major detractors of our happiness. Detach from the variables of success that are not in your control and de-emphasize your attachment to results. For instance, if your child loves to perform and sing, it is beyond our control to influence the way a director or voice coach reacts to your child, but you and your child can control the amount of effort and time spent rehearsing a particular song.
  • If you truly want your kids to be happy, be mindful of how you speak to them about their own performance or about the accomplishments of other kids their age. How many times have you said as a parent, “I just want my kids to be happy and healthy” and then praised their friend for “making the A team” or being accepted to a prestigious college? (I, for one, cringe at the number of times I have done this one!)
  • Children should engage in activities that stretch them and high expectations are more than fine as long as they are relative to your child’s unique abilities.
  • Children should be praised for real accomplishments (verbal praise and a hug will do). If your child sat on the bench during a soccer game, don’t praise their skill or performance. Children internally know when adults are being inauthentic. You can, however, let them know that you are proud of them for being patient and for cheering their teammates on.

4) Gratitude and Mindfulness

I know, I know, you probably do not need to read more on this topic. Bottom line, feeling grateful and using mindfulness to slow things down truly changes brain structure and chemistry. Make these practices as easy and convenient as possible for your busy family.

  • Put a white board on the back of a door and every time you think of something to be grateful for or you feel a positive emotion, write it down. Put it at kid level so everyone can add to it.
  • Have your child tell you three things that they were happy or proud about as you put them to bed.
  • Make your walks or drives to school “mindful”. Use the skill of “five, four, three, two, one” on your way to school. This means notice five things you see, four things you hear, three things you touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste. You can also make eating more “mindful” by using the same strategy at a family meal.

5) Be Social

It turns out that the most influential factor of happiness is having meaningful relationships. The quality of connections being more important than the quantity. Being with other people will pretty much always make us feel better.

  • Support the narrative that your child is well liked. Most of the time, when social situations do not go well for our children, variables other than our children’s personality are the culprit.
  • Having a positive belief in yourself as a social being will positively impact the way your child carries herself in social situations.
  • Practice taking other’s perspectives. Empathy represents a very sophisticated level of human development and we do not want to give our kids the impression that they can read others’ minds (that leads to thinking mistakes which can harm our mood and sense of self). But, we do want to encourage our kids to be curious about how other people might feel in a certain situation. This prosocial skill will help your child be more flexible in relationships.
  • Children’s literature has started to do a good job helping children build their social acumen. Like Ability, by Lori Gets and Mitch Prinstein (12 yrs and above), How to Master Your Social Power in Middle School by Bonnie Zucker and DeAndre Hodge (11 to 14 years), and Better Together by Chloe Douglass (4-8 years) are examples of books that teach our kids prosocial behaviors.

6) Volunteer/Do Nice Things For Others

Nothing is a guarantee, but a surefire way to feel happier is when we do nice things for others. This can be big or small. Calling grandma to see how her day went, smiling and saying hi to the person working at the checkout line, or bringing an extra sticker to school for your friend are all respectable ways to be nice to others. And perhaps your family wants to do something a little bigger by volunteering.

  • Children as young as pre-school can benefit from doing projects for others. Selecting old books to put in the library donation box is powerful in an age appropriate way.
  • In New York, there is an amazing website called Volunteer New York. Parents can fill out an online form with their child’s ages and the category of types of volunteer projects which will result in a list of applicable programs. Most communities will have similar volunteer clearing houses.

I have a dirty little secret, psychologists are not perfect parents or people, and I doubt that there is evidence that we are happier than the general public. I have often caught myself disregarding the research and questioning how my children could be unhappy, given the quality of their external lives. During really frustrating moments with my kids, I am ashamed to say that my internal voice shouted, “what could you possibly be unhappy about?”I was ignoring the evidence that external circumstances are sorely lacking as building blocks for happiness. It’s not easy raising children and I am not a perfect parent (the fact that I felt compelled to use the term “hot take” is proof of my vast shortcomings-sorry kids!).

You might not be surprised to read that I am one of those people who have the urge to use a ton of exclamation points in my texts and emails (kind of goes along with the rainbow infatuation). This tendency actually works to devalue my more serious points and dulls the excitement of the moments that really deserve the positive attention. Likewise, in life there is no one who believes that children or adults should feel happy all of the time. The point is to punctuate everyday experiences with moments of joy, excitement, and contentment and to string these moments together to create a meaningful life. The problem with social media is that it gives us the impression that all moments deserve an exclamation point. Let’s be honest, most of life can feel mundane and tedious. For busy minded people there are few moments of rest and clarity. Letting go of the guilt associated with the “blah”ness of our ordinary lives creates space for your brain to recognize moments of true joy. Feeling inadequate as a human being or as parents is like carrying a backpack of bricks on our backs. Life is fuller and more sustainable when we understand that happiness is not supposed to be the constant normal state of affairs for humans. Rather, happiness is an accumulation of meaningful emotional reactions across time. I am happy (I mean it!) to report that change is possible and I am living proof that it is never too late to work on our capacity to feel contentment and joy.