5 ways to get happy

The beginner's guide to a life of bliss

Witnessing your baby’s first toothless grin, taking your nine-year-old to the end-of-summer fair, sharing your tween’s excitement as she heads off to the movies with her BFF: Parenting is filled with many moments of sheer delight. Of course, given that gummy smiles often precede spit-up, candy- floss-filled nine-year-olds and roller coasters don’t always mix, and BFFs can become BBB (boring beyond belief) overnight, it’s no surprise that even the sunniest parent can find happiness as elusive as being first in line for soccer registration.

Luckily, social scientists are discovering that happiness is not simply a by-product of our circumstances. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, discovered that life circumstances, such as health and finances, account for a slim 10 percent of our happiness. While about half of our happiness is in our genes (some people are just born Pollyannas), a significant 40 percent is directly within our control. Want to get happy? Here are five surefire strategies:

1. Set goals and achieve them together

It’s often tempting to skip doing stuff with the entire family. Hey, we get it. Everything involving kids takes time, organization, patience and energy — who needs it, right? You do. The satisfaction and confidence that comes from completing a defined task is a big part of feeling happy. Gretchen Rubin, author of the forthcoming book The Happiness Project, makes gingerbread houses with her kids every Christmas. “Each year, it’s a big production and, each year, it’s worth it.” Rubin believes you have to take on challenging but achievable goals, like taking up a brand new sport or organizing all those JPEGs into a family photo album.

2. Love they neighbour

The happiest people are generally the ones who trust their neighbours (the people next door) the most, according to John Helliwell, of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the Department of Economics at University of British Columbia, who studied life satisfaction across Canada. Whether you’re swapping tales of bedtime woes or chatting about the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother, neighbours are a busy mom’s connection to the outside world. So turn off your laptop and pop in to meet the new family down the street. You can bring them that gingerbread house you made with your kids.

3. Be thankful

Teaching our children to feel gratitude is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. (Just don’t expect too much from the under-six crowd: Research shows it’s still all about them at that age!) Studies have shown that people who appreciate what they have and the people in their lives are happier than those who don’t.

4. Take care of you

It’s hard to be happy when you don’t feel good. As parents, we take our little ones to the potty every half-hour, but how many times have you put off going to the washroom today? Life coach Kerri Richardson often reminds her clients to check in with themselves at regular intervals to make sure their physical needs are being met: “Ask yourself, ‘What do I need right now?’ Do it regularly. You tend to your needs and, as a result, your reserve gets filled and you are better able to show up for life’s commitments and opportunities.”

5. Savour the good times

While it’s easy to focus on milestone events as the ultimate in happiness (your little one starring in the school play or taking a family trip to Disneyland), most of our smiles come from seeing beauty in the everyday. Driving to soccer practice, brushing tangles from your daughter’s hair, relaxing on the couch after school, shaking sand from little shoes, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, the rise and fall of your son’s back when you peek in on him at night: Savouring these everyday moments is the recipe for a happy life.

Happy reading

The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar, McGraw-Hill 2009. Sharp, energetic writing and an easy-to- remember message. Stop trying to be perfect!

Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons, Houghton Mifflin 2007. Looks at how “wanting what you have” can change your life.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin 2007. A scientific approach to being happy.

Field Guide to Happiness for Women by Barbara Ann Kipfer, Globe Pequot Press 2009. Tips to get happy, including eating quality food (no problem there!).

If you’re feeling low

For people suffering a recent loss or struggling with depression, DIY happiness boosters may not be enough. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing sadness, feelings of failure or inadequacy, an inability to concentrate, social isolation, loss of interest in favourite activities, changes in appetite or sleep, irritability or thoughts of self-harm. These are all signs of depression.

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