Ask parents what they want most for their children and they’ll answer the same: Happiness. But if we hover and coddle and grant their every wish, they grow up to expect that treatment from the rest of the world and are going to be seriously unhappy when they realize that’s not how things work. And if we exert too much control while instilling traditional discipline and a strong work ethic, says a new British study, we could scar them emotionally for life.
So how do we raise happy children? “The science of positive psychology has shown us that happiness comes from experiencing lots of different positive emotions: gratitude, appreciation, optimism and confidence about the future, joy and contentment in the present,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Get started today—no matter what age your children are—cultivating the following five character traits that happy children share. (Not surprisingly—they’re also found in fulfilled adults!)
ARE PLAYFUL “There’s so much pressure to sign kids up for loads of activities today, but not enough free time negatively impacts a child’s happiness in two ways,” explains author Katie Hurley. First, if kids are constantly doing structured activities, they are not spending time with you. Different children can handle different degrees of busyness, but a good rule of thumb is one sport, and maybe one other activity per season. Secondly, overscheduled kids don’t get time to just play, which provides a wealth of benefits that contributes to happiness: Play develops imagination and creativity, builds social skills and teaches problem-solving.
ARE CONFIDENT Few feelings in life are as thrilling as that moment when a child realizes, “I can do it!” The sense of security that comes with deep connections, along with the skills your child builds through play, leads to the confidence to try new things. And confident children are optimistic children. “When problems arise, as they do for all of us, the confident, optimistic child tackles them with the certainty that they are solvable and continues to try again, rather than give up,” Ned explains. Christine seconds that: “Optimism is so closely related to happiness.”
THINK POSITIVELY Teaching kids to have a glass-half-full attitude when something negative occurs in their lives is essential to their happiness, and building all the other skills we’ve discussed so far puts them on this positive track. “Understanding what triggers all types of feelings helps children work through the negative so they get to a positive viewpoint,” Katie notes. To make this happen, parents need to be “emotion coaches,” Christine emphasizes. According to research, children who can manage their emotions experience negative feelings for shorter periods of time.
ARE CONNECTED “The most important thing parents can give a child is a life that’s full of positive points of connection—at home, at school, on teams, at church and in your community,” says Dr. Ned Hallowell, a Harvard psychiatrist. “And those positive connections occur when you enjoy your kids and have fun together. Set up family traditions and celebrations. Use physical touch: Snuggle, kiss, wrestle.”
ARE GRATEFUL Of course you’ve been teaching your children to say “Please” and “Thank you” since they began to talk. Now a bevy of research connects a deeper understanding and attitude of gratitude with true happiness and life satisfaction. As you model generosity, and your child gets to observe the gratitude that someone feels from it—this feeling will help him realize how much he has to be grateful for.