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Teaching the Happiness Habit

You want your children to be happy, but do they know how?


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Five-year-old Jonah Hinckley kangaroo-leapt to victory not once but twice in a recent birthday party sack race. Holding his pillowcase tightly around his waist, he hurdled yards ahead of other partygoers—as if he’d been leaping in a pillowcase most of his life.

Afterward, instead of touting his big win, Jonah raved about his feelings of joy while leaping. "I’m a great jumper because I jump when I’m happy. That’s why I get lots of practice, ’cause I’m happy a lot. And jumping makes me happy."

Jonah sounds like a typical kinder-gartener, full of bouncy exuberance. But his ability to recognize his emotions and to speak clearly about them is a skill beyond his years. It’s an ability carefully cultivated by his parents, Devorah and Michael, who talk to Jonah and his eight-year-old brother, Daniel, about their feelings every day. The Hinckleys want their children to learn the happiness habit—the practice of paying attention to what brings them joy and to express their emotions.

Every evening during dinner in their Walnut Creek home, the Hinckleys take turns talking about the happiest and saddest moments of their day. It’s a small ritual, but Devorah already sees positive results. "Jonah’s used to hearing about other people’s feelings and being aware of his own. It’s very easy for him to get along with other children—boys and girls."

This is a skill that experts say will serve Jonah well in all areas of life. Luckily for him, he’s learning at a young age to tune into feelings of fulfillment and to use them to succeed at new and challenging situations.

In his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness (Free Press), Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the leading writers on optimism and positive feelings, notes the high correlation between happiness and rewarding social relationships: Not only do happy people have more friends but they also demonstrate more empathy.

One of Jonah’s teachers has already seen this empathy, as well as Jonah’s ability to manage his feelings. A frowning Jonah one day reported that someone had teased him, a situation that typically makes children angry. But as he talked, Jonah started to smile. "It’s OK that she teased me," he said. "She likes to make me laugh. That’s why she does it." Jonah’s habit of looking for the positive didn’t allow him to stay indignant for long.

Local happiness expert M. J. Ryan has at times transformed her own negative emotions by concentrating on the positive. She has created warm feelings in her family for years by focusing on one powerful form of emotional awareness: the capacity for feeling grateful. "Years ago, I wrote a bestselling book called Attitudes of Gratitude, and learning about gratitude changed my life. By concentrating daily on what was wonderful in my life, I actually became a more joyful person."

Ryan, her husband, Don, and their nine-year-old daughter, Ana, have a dinner ritual much like the Hinckleys’. Each shares something he or she is grateful for at dinner each night. "Everyone has to come up with something—guests included," Ryan says laughing.Ryan also wrote The Happiness Makeover, which relates the story of her own conversion to happiness, notes new scientific research, and offers suggestions on how you, too, can convert to happiness. As a professional consultant in maximizing human potential, Ryan advises businesses and individual clients to look at their patterns of success and to reproduce them in areas where they are having challenges.

"It’s easier to pay attention to what you’re doing right and to use those abilities in difficult situations than it is to learn something completely new," Ryan says. "One client who is trying to make it as an artist was discouraged by other peoples’ ideas of what she should be doing and her own self-doubts. I asked her to look at what she does when she’s doing her job well. That exercise left her feeling happy about her work. The same techniques work with children. Ask them why they succeed in particular situations. At any age, when we notice our successes, we feel fulfilled."

As this busy school year gets off to a roaring start, take time to review each member of your family’s successes of the previous year as well as activities that brought them satisfaction. Encourage your children to pursue activities and studies that make them happy. Get them to talk about the best things in their day as well as the frustrations. They’ll be more apt to remember the moments they want to repeat.

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote that it is not the things in life that bother us but our opinions about those things. Cultivating the happiness habit helps us to respond to the inevitable ups and downs of life more lightheartedly.

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