Dear Dr. Debbie,
Is there a secret to happiness? Sometimes one or more of my children, ages 8, 10, and 13, will quickly recover from a disappointment and at other times sadness, anger, or worry hang over them like a dark cloud for hours or even days.
Depression runs in the family on both sides, so I take notice when one of our brood is brooding.
Sometimes Half Empty
The psychology of happiness, also known as positive psychology, has been studied and analyzed by Dr. Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child (1995), and other social science researchers. Seligman himself battled depression at a young age and took up the study of psychology in college. But rather than follow the notion prevalent in the 1960s that the purpose of psychology was to understand and eliminate misery related to past experiences, he took a positive spin toward finding out how to promote optimism and happiness going forward. Through his research, writing, and speaking, his goal is to make the world happier. His most recent book, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, is based on his work and his personal life. He makes a compelling case for the importance of virtues such as hope, gratitude, and wisdom for good mental health.
Seligman’s work examining different cultures across time—reviewing the world’s major religions and philosophies going back to Aristotle and Plato—revealed universally valued character strengths that we each have in varying degrees. As a parent, you can identify the strengths each of your children uses to pull out of a negative mood following a disappointment. Then help each child to recognize her specific strengths, using this awareness to encourage her to use one of them when a disappointment threatens to ruin her day (or several days). Make a plan together as you discuss her strengths, then remind her of the plan when the opportunity arises, and finally, evaluate her success together. Make a new plan if this one didn’t work so well. The theory suggests that any of the strengths can be learned, in other words, strengthened, to help an individual react more effectively to life’s inevitable adversities.
A person has a unique profile of 24 strengths, more or less for each one, across six categories:
Courage: bravery, perseverance integrity, and enthusiasm.
Point out when your child loves a challenge, sticks with an argument or project, takes responsibility for her actions, or approaches life with exuberance.
Humanity: love, kindness, and social intelligence.
Notice your child using great social skills, relying on relationships to help with strife, or relishing a chance to do a good deed for someone else.
Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, humor, gratitude, optimism, and purpose.
Share your awareness that your child notices the beauty and perfection in nature or human actions, sees the humor in a situation, is grateful for good fortune and the kindness of others, is hopeful rather that doubtful, or feels connected to a purpose for his life.
Temperance: forgiveness, self-control, prudence, and humility.
Bring attention to your child’s ability to accept others’ faults, give second chances, control her impulses, weigh choices before acting, or let her accomplishments speak for themselves.
Justice: leadership, teamwork, and fairness.
Recognize your child’s respectful treatment of others, whether he’s leading or following, or when he sticks up for someone being treated inequitably.
Wisdom: love of learning, open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity, and judgment.
Help your child realize her abilities to take in new ideas, to consider different perspectives, to be interested in new experiences, to find new ways to do things, or to be objective in her decision-making.
Seligman believes in using this framework to teach children to think optimistically at around the ages of your children—when they’re old enough to think about their own thinking but before the upheavals of puberty. They can learn and practice skills now, based on knowledge of their strengths, to prepare for the inevitable mayhem of relationships and academic pressures soon to come, as well as the ongoing clashes with family members, and general life disappointments that are out of their control. (I’ll use humor here to point out the advantages of a pandemic to provide many opportunities to put a happiness plan into action!)
Practice and evaluation will help your children to get better and better at conquering looming threats to their emotional well-being with their unique super powers. They will learn they are able to recover from a moment of gloom. Seligman’s team of researchers has observed that pessimism can not only be changed to optimism when we focus on strengths, but that these practices successfully prevent symptoms of depression.
As a parent you have an influence over the emotional climate of your home. How happy are you? Identify moments of joy and achievement to savor each day. If you say you don’t have any, make a plan using one of your strengths to overcome this deficiency! Be a model of using self-discovered strengths to shrug off a frustration, setback, or overall unhappiness. Evaluate your plan and revise it if need be.
Maybe you should devote some time to nurturing your own social connections. Or you may want to use alone time for introspection about your life’s purpose. Identify what you’d like to know more about and read up on parenting, or nutritious cooking, or how families dealt with pandemics or other extreme hardships in the past. See if practicing gratitude and forgiveness release you from dissatisfaction with your accomplishments or relationships. Perhaps a creative pursuit or home-based business would be an outlet for your energies, social engagement needs, sense of purpose, or thirst for learning. Find your own model of someone you admire who approaches disappointments with a strength you’d like to improve upon for yourself. Then do it.
Happiness is achievable.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.