Are your kids happy? According to the Global Kids Happiness Index, children claim to be happy either all or most of the time. (Phew!) Yet the same report, which surveyed 4,200 kids aged six to 12 around the world, notes that as children grow older, they also grow unhappier: 76 percent of six-year-olds reported feeling happy most of the time, compared to only 62 percent of 12-year-olds. Naturally, we want to do whatever we can to prevent that fall from bliss — and there are more reasons than just our love for our children to make their moods a top priority. Research has found that feeling content is actually tied to tangible benefits: Happy people have been shown to have healthier relationships, better paying jobs and longer lives. Also, “increases in happiness are linked to improvements in immune systems,” says Mark Holder, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, who studies the science of feeling good.
What can we do to nurture that joy? Here are six scientifically-proven ways to preserve your child’s carefree state of mind.
Read more: Secrets of happy moms >
1. Encourage giving In a 2012 study by Burnaby, BC, researcher Lara Aki, toddlers were asked to give treats to a puppet and Aki concluded that handing over the goodies gave the kids more joy than receiving treats themselves. However, Aki also discovered that parents couldn’t force that contented feeling to happen. “If you force people to give, it undermines the emotional reward of giving,” she explains. “Research we’ve done with adults shows that simply recalling a time they’ve been generous helps to bring back that contented feeling. So remind kids about times they’ve been generous, and let them remember how happy they felt.”
2. Build social connections With friends ranking high on the list of what brings children joy, it’s no surprise that research supports the link between social connections and pleasure. A 2010 University of British Columbia study found that children with support in their community — teachers, coaches, babysitters and friends — are likely to be happier and have healthier self-esteem. These relationships often develop naturally, but if your little one has trouble making friends, try setting up a playdate with a task in mind — something of interest to both children, like Lego building or crafts. “Some kids do better when given common tasks to enjoy instead of free play,” says Alyson Schafer, the Toronto-based author of Ain’t Misbehavin’. “This can help give structure and purpose to the visit and the pressure of socializing becomes secondary.”
Read more: Do your kids struggle to make friends? >
3. Practise gratitude In 2011, the Girl Scouts of America introduced the Science of Happiness badge. The steps to earn the badge include keeping a gratitude journal (a diary-like booklet or scrapbook where kids can write down or paste in pictures of what they feel fortunate about); exercises to practise optimistic thinking; and conducting “happiness experiments,” which involve surveying friends to find out what makes them happy. While you could introduce the idea of a gratitude journal to your child, you could also use a lighter touch at home, suggests Holder – such as discussing over dinner the best parts of everyone’s days, or a one-on-one with your kids at bedtime. Because, as Jeffrey Froh, a researcher with Hofstra University, in New York, discovered in a 2011 study, grateful children are happier children.
4. Lighten up It’s no shock that number three on the Global Kids Happiness Index was play (not music lessons!). Remember how children reported being happier at age six than at age 12? The kids link their levity with lighter workloads and less pressures at school. So, feel confident about leaving blanks on the calendar and let your kids find their own creative ways of filling that time. Better yet, send them outside: Free play, especially the gross-motor play that children tend to be involved in outdoors (such as running and jumping) can ease a child’s “allostatic load,” a.k.a. the physiological effects of stress on a child’s body, notes a 2005 study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. This backs a separate 2003 study from New York’s Cornell University that examined 337 children in grades three to five and found that kids playing outdoors had reduced stress.
Read more: Raise a happy child >
5. Limit the junk Here’s another reason to limit your child’s unhealthy snacking. One 2012 UK study discovered that kids aged 10 to 15 who eat more junk food aren’t as happy. Why? “There’s evidence that eating junk food does result in happiness,” notes the lead researcher Cara Booker. “However, these effects only last a short amount of time.” Indeed, the more focus we put on extrinsic goals (i.e. buying things) versus intrinsic goals (i.e. getting more exercise), the less satisfied we are, confirms Christopher Barrington-Leigh, an assistant professor at the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal. So consider it more fuel to fight the “gimmes” at the grocery store, because while treats seemingly give your child joy, they really only offer a short-term happiness high. Many enjoyment experts note once the high wears off, children and parents have to deal with the negative consequences of these habits, namely overspending and obesity.
Read more: The link between food and behaviour>
6. Speak positively Like Ghandi’s famous “Be the change you wish to see in the world” message, Carol McCloud, author of Fill a Bucket: A Guide to Daily Happiness for the Young Child, reminds us that children are the products of our actions. “Our children are little sponges. Their thoughts and beliefs are programmed by how others treat them.”
A version of this article appeared in our December 2013 issue with the headline “The science of happiness,” p.56-7.