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Can't buy them love

UC Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter gives tips to help make your kids happier.


Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer once said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.” Christine Carter, Ph.D, a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, would surely agree. She has found that happiness in kids is a stronger predictor of school performance and career success than IQ. Happy kids also get fewer illnesses and form stronger friendships. Diablo sat down with Carter, 38, an Orinda native and mother of two, to get some advice on how to keep kids—and parents—happy.

How old are your two daughters?

They are seven and nine.

Wait until they’re teenagers.

I hear that a lot. But my work isn’t just based on little kids. From a research standpoint, it is a lot easier to study adolescents. So, much of my new book is geared to them.

What makes your book different from other parenting advice sources?

Until now, all the parenting advice we had came from professionals who had studied problem populations. But now we have this whole new science focused on happiness. The information coming out of this may not be relevant for children in the spectrum toward autism. But it is very applicable to most families.

Were you a happy child?

I was an anxious child. I cried every day until the middle of second grade. I carried anxiety with me and overachieved through high school and college. Reading the work of social scientist Carol Dweck was like flipping a switch for me. She studies mind-sets and what makes people successful. It made me realize that my perfectionism was a happiness killer.

How so?

If you view success as possible through hard work, not just innate talent, then you can see failures as opportunities for growth and improvement. Being talented is not in your control; viewing success as an outcome of talent has been found across different populations to create anxiety. But viewing success as the outcome of practice gives you the motivation to engage and become more confident. Engagement and confidence both generate happiness.

What really is a happy life?

A happy life is one filled with positive emotions—engagement, gratitude, inspiration, awe—and positive emotions toward other people: love, empathy, and compassion. When I was anxious, I was not engaged in my work; I was in fear of failure.

What do you mean by gratitude?

We [sometimes] teach our kids to be grateful for material things, which do not lead to happiness. Noticing how beautiful the sky looks is different from being grateful that Aunt Sally bought you the Uggs that you have been coveting.

Isn’t that the basic concept of most religions?

Yes. Science is just catching up with many thousands of years of wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism and Judaism. I like Buddhist teachings; the Dalai Lama helped bring the concept of mindfulness to Western culture. I also like the work of James Baraz [a Bay Area meditation expert]. Check out his new video on YouTube titled “Confessions of a Jewish Mother: How My Son Ruined My Life.” He got his 91-year-old mother to stop complaining and experience gratitude. Learning to pray, to meditate, and to say grace are all wonderful.

What’s important for a happy family life?

We know now, scientifically, what types of things lead to happiness. One is spending a lot of time with other people. When it comes to social connections, more is better. It would be easier to hunker down after a long day and kick back. But, I know it is important to put out that extra effort to foster connections. So, we wind up having people over for dinner two or three times a week. All the kids set the table, someone brings a salad, and no one leaves until everything is cleaned up. My friends know that I am happy to see their smiling faces at 5:15 p.m. and happy to see the backs of their heads at 7:15 p.m. This is about enjoying our lives, and connections to other families are a big part of that.Courtesy of Christine Carter/Blake Farrington

You went through a divorce recently. Was that experience especially difficult for you, considering your work is focused on

Yes. It was ironic that when I started doing this work a couple of years ago and getting a lot of press about it, my marriage was falling apart. Paradoxically, the most important thing for achieving happiness is to learn to cope with life’s difficulties—with the unexpected and with negative emotions. We can then help our kids develop a resilient emotional intelligence and build a foundation of skills that enables them to understand themselves, and to interpret their own emotions and those of others.

How can we best help our kids develop emotional intelligence?

The first step is to become their emotional coach. You do this by helping them label and identify what they are feeling—not what you think they should be feeling. We often say things to kids like, “Oh, you’re not afraid of that,” or, “Come on, this is going to be fun.” We should not invalidate how they are feeling. All feelings are OK. The trick is to help kids learn the distinction between feelings and behavior. When we are punishing or correcting bad behavior, we need to convey that it is not bad to feel angry but it is bad to hit your sister.

Assuming that adults understand the difference themselves.

Yes. That’s why my new book addresses adults as well. A lot of this is retraining our own behavior. We don’t come to parenting knowing this.

As a single mother trying to raise two happy kids on top of professional work, how do you do it?

I have a very deep village. My parents, who still live in Orinda, help out. Also, there are a lot of stay-at-home moms in my neighborhood who do a lot of mothering of my children. I recently was late picking up one of my daughters from school and watched her run happily into the arms of one of my friends. And I thought, “Wow, that kid’s got it made.” At that age, I would have panicked if I did not see my mother.

How do you feel about after-school activities?

My kids don’t do many after-school activities. [They play soccer in the fall.] I have seen the research, and it is very clear that unstructured play is much better for children’s development. A lot of kids’ structured activities are fear driven; parents are afraid that without all these activities, kids won’t have the tools they need to succeed. But happiness is crucial to kids achieving, and kids are not going to get happier by taking knitting, Mandarin, and Spanish when they are six years old.

Is being happy all the time a good goal?

One of the things our kids need most is the ability to fail and grow from that, to learn how to cope with difficulty with humor and grace. This will help them develop the emotional depth and empathy they need to achieve happiness. 


CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from Carter’s Raising Happiness.


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