04/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Raise Happy Kids

Recently I was an observer at a sold-out parent education seminar about the epidemic levels of depression, suicide and anxiety disorders affecting children. The lecturer asked the audience rhetorically, "What is it that we most want our children to be?" In stunning synchronicity, the audience roared, "HAPPY."

Of course.

We parents want our children to grow into happy adults. In my new book Raising Happiness —which launches today!—I give parents 10 research-based steps for raising happy children that promise to make us happier parents as well. As a part of my job at the Greater Good Science Center, I monitor the research related to happiness, child-rearing, and well-being in sociology, psychology and neuroscience. I'm also a mom myself, so I am always watching for ways to apply this research to my own parenting.

A lot of people have pooh-poohed my deep interest in (some would say obsession with) happiness over the last decade, especially before it was hip to study and write about. But the pursuit of happiness is not a fad; loads of ancient wisdom traditions are based on the pursuit of happiness. (Maybe it just seems trendy because science is only just now catching on.) The Dalai Lama is famously a fan of happiness, having declared that "the purpose of life is to be happy."

Similarly, Aristotle once declared happiness to be the "chief good." What he meant by this is that everything we do in life we do because we think it will make us happier. We go on diets because we think losing weight will make us happier; we search for soul-mates because we believe true joy can be found only with another person; we climb all manner of mountains because we think we'll be happy when we prove to others how strong we are.

Unfortunately, research shows that people typically pursue happiness in ways and things that don't make them happy.

At the same time, we also have a lot of scientific research which points to the things that do make us happy. It was this research that inspired me to start writing for parents: What if we can teach children effective means to pursue happiness?

I think we can do that, as parents and as a society. Here are three ideas about how to get you started:

  1. Learn how to praise your children correctly.

    Nearly three decades of research has shown profound consequences when kids believe that their intelligence (or athletic ability or anything else) is innate rather than something they can develop through practice.

    When we send the message to our kids that their talents are inborn—as when we praise a kid for being a "natural baseball player"—we create urgency in them to prove their "gifts" over and over. So they start to avoid learning new things, and they start choosing activities based on whether or not they will succeed or fail, look smart or dumb, be accepted or rejected.

    For kids (and parents) who attribute success to natural talent rather than something like practice, effort is an indication that they aren't naturally gifted. For example, think about what happens when a kid who has been told he's brilliant can't figure something out easily. Does that mean everyone was wrong—he's not brilliant? This becomes a problem any time we need to learn something new: it takes effort and often hard work to master a new skill or learn a new subject.

    When we praise our kids by attributing their success to their innate gifts, we hand them a recipe for anxiety and joyless achievement. It isn't the praise itself that is bad; but when we do praise our kids, we need to attribute their success to things like effort, commitment, resourcefulness, hard work and practice. Those are the things that truly help them grow, succeed, and be happy.

  2. Laugh a lot.

    When you do, your heart rate and blood pressure drop and your muscles relax. This makes it easier for you to connect with your children. And because laughter is contagious, it might just calm the bodies and raise the spirits of your kids, too.

  3. Consciously practice—and teach—gratitude.

    One of the most important happiness habits in the history of the universe is gratitude. Thankfulness is a skill we need to teach our kids to practice regularly (rather than something we should assume they'll feel innately). Keep lists of things you and your kids are grateful for. Anything can go on the list, no matter how large or small: people, places, toys, events, nature. People who consciously practice gratitude like this are dramatically happier—as well as more energetic, determined and kind.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, whose mission it is to teach skills for a thriving, resilient and compassionate society. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature in neuroscience, sociology, and psychology to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of the new book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and of a blog called Half Full. Dr. Carter also has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness; she lives near San Francisco with her family.