Most parents say their children’s life-long happiness is the most important thing to them. How to help someone else be happy, though, has always been a bit of a mystery.
As Americans, it’s in our bones to believe if our children have successful careers and make a good living, they will be happy as adults. So, American parents tend to highly emphasize the importance of studying hard, getting good grades, planning for college, and participating in activities and sports that might lead to success in the future.
The good news is an unprecedented amount of research has been done the last 10 years and we now know what leads to personal happiness. With this knowledge, we are equipped to educate our children about how they can lead a happy life.
As it turns out, enjoying your work and having a middle-class income (or higher) is really important. But it will only affect about one-third of our children’s happiness as adults. The other two-thirds of happiness in one’s life comes from having a couple of really close friends, having a stable and happy long-term romantic relationship, and having hobbies you enjoy and spend time doing.
Armed with this knowledge, I now ask my children different questions on the ride home from school than I might once have: “Who did you play with today, did you remember to take turns?” “Did you and Sally work things out today?” “Did you apologize to your teacher for talking during class yesterday?” And a million other questions like these designed to help them to be good friends, to choose healthy friends, and to work out problems in their relationships.
For most of us, it’s natural to jump to our child’s defense when problems arise with their friends or with their teachers. And, certainly, it’s important for them to know they can come to us with anything, and that we support them completely. If we stop there though, we are missing golden opportunities to teach relationship skills: understanding where others are coming from, how to compromise, how to resolve conflicts, and how to apologize when we should. These skills are the backbones of positive and long-term relationships. Now is the time to teach them these skills: the friends and teachers of today will be the friends, spouses, co-workers and bosses of tomorrow.
Fine-tuning these messages to each child can be tricky. With my youngest, I remind her when you are bossy you might get what you want right then and there, but eventually people will go play with others who can compromise. With my oldest, I encourage her to speak her mind and stand up for herself, as she tends to be more timid.
Although they are young, I find myself priming them about how to pick who to date and who to marry someday. “Hot,” “athletic,” popular,” and other characteristics like these wear thin over time. I emphasize what is really important is “nice,” “treats you well,” “likes to do fun things,” “listens when you talk,” and “you can work through problems together.” Also focus on your child treating others this way. Choosing a healthy spouse is the most important decision our children will ever make: it’s one of the top three predictors of happiness in adulthood.
If your child plays sports, music, acts, or is in student government, emphasize, “Was that a fun game (play, concert)?” and, “I love watching you play (act, debate).” Children are unlikely to make a living as a professional athlete, musician, actress, or in politics, but their love of these activities might be a life-long joy to them; so help them keep their love of their hobby alive by not adding pressure to it. Research shows having hobbies we enjoy are important to happiness; we don’t have to be good at them.
Role model these skills to your child by doing them for yourself.
Spend time with a dear friend, go on a date with your romantic partner, do something you love. You deserve it, too.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.