In the hubbub of life with kids, it's amazing how fragile happiness can seem. One minute everyone is enjoying breakfast together, and the next the orange juice is toppled and the drawing is ruined and nobody wants the pancakes anymore. Blown out of proportion by a cranky preschooler, sulking tween or grudge-holding parent, a single mishap can expand into a gloom that lasts for hours.
This is why the spate of recent research into the actual science of happiness caught my attention. Juice puddles (and far worse) will always be with us, but, it turns out, they have little to do with how truly content a family is. Instead, as Tolstoy said, happy families actually are all alike—at least in that they practice common habits that help inoculate them against setbacks large and small. The good news for the rest of us? Copying those might make us happier, too.
Give Thanks—No Matter What
Research consistently finds that regularly expressing gratitude is good for our overall well-being: People who do so are healthier, more successful at reaching their goals, more optimistic, and more inclined to help others. But what if your family is struggling, say with a job loss, and no one is feeling like they have much to be thankful for?
"There's nothing wrong with faking it," says Robert Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of the book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. "It doesn't have to be spontaneous or natural. Act grateful, and you'll soon start feeling it."
This strategy is based on a well-known psychological fact: Human brains don't like to behave and feel in opposition. That's why your kids will struggle through the simple exercise of trying to smile while saying something mean, or attempting to frown while saying "I love you." Their expressions will want to follow their words.
For those of us whose natural tendency is to see the glass as half empty, the fact that our brain wants to align with our actions provides some support on the way to happiness. During your week, take time to identify some little positive, and then give thanks—to the person responsible, to yourself, to the universe or your God. Not only will you feel better, but it'll set a good example for your kids. "If we stand around waiting for a feeling to move us, we may never get going," says Emmons. "But choosing to act grateful for what we have is something we can all do."
At home, encourage your kids to establish a habit of acknowledging all the good in life and in other people. Deliberate, regular practice helps: Each month, ask them to send thank-yous to people who have been kind, helpful, or generous, for example. Make those into creative fun, rather than a chore, by suggesting they send them in the form of a photo, video, or drawing. And, of course, count your blessings whenever your family has time together, whether at breakfast, dinner, bedtime, or even in the car.
Seek Out Satisfaction in Your Choices
This advice goes to the heart of a key finding of happiness research: It's important to learn to be content with how our decisions turn out. My children's preschool teacher, Joyce Drolette of Bozeman, MT, sent the girls home repeating what turns out to be a powerful mantra for happiness: "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit."
"I've never met a parent who will say she only wants what's 'good enough' for her kids," says Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, and author of the book The Paradox of Choice. "But if happiness is your goal, that's exactly where you need to aim."
Schwartz's research shows that for many people, having multiple options and aspiring for the very best among them causes far more pain than gain. Schwartz calls these people "maximizers," and we all know them: They are the ones who can't enjoy the balcony at their beach hotel because they see a better balcony around the corner. In fact, maximizers may never even get down to the shore at all. They are so consumed with making the "right" and best choices that they end up paralyzed, unable to decide if they should ask for the pool view or the beach view. For every one of them, though, there is what Schwartz calls a "satisficer": someone totally at peace with her balcony, who goes out there, sits back, and enjoys the view. She knows she chose this hotel at this rate and will relish the fact that she has a few days to escape.
If you want happiness, Schwartz's research strongly advises, try to be a satisficer—and teach your kid to be one, too. "Explicit lessons are the least important ones," says Schwartz, a father of two and a grandfather. Most kids won't learn the behavior simply by being told that's how they should act. "The most important thing you can do is to model the behavior for your child."
In a practical sense, says Schwartz, this means making a deliberate practice of being personally and publicly satisfied with your own decisions and not second-guessing yourself or comparing yourself to others. This may not be your nature, and you might not always succeed, but trying is half the battle. If you find yourself roiling inside, take a walk, read a book, anything that will refocus your mind.
Limiting your family's selection is another proven tactic for making dissatisfaction and regret less likely, says Schwartz. It can help contain that always ultimately fruitless search for the optimal experience.
Nick Manhart, a father of four children under 6, says he and his wife, Carolyn, often present their kids with a deliberately scaled-down menu of options—whether in their choice of ice cream or which swimming pool to go to.
"We do this to reinforce the concept of finding satisfaction in what is available," says the Omaha, NE, dad. "My six-year-old would have cake and then want ice cream and then have both and still not be happy. Offering less makes each experience more special, and ends up giving him more joy."
Lose Yourself in the Moment
Okay, not every moment. But research indicates that happy people focus on moments of joy: those in the present, the past, and even the ones possible in the future.
"It's a great challenge. Adults are constantly swamped by the negative," says Loyola University Chicago professor of psychology Fred Bryant, Ph.D., coauthor of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience. But it is possible to teach kids to see the rosy side of things even when there's bad news out there. How? By making a deliberate decision to focus on the good stuff. For example, when you narrate your day to your child, frame the story around the highlights. That's not to say you ignore the downsides, but instead you can explain how you handled them and tried to keep them in perspective.
You might also regularly take time to remind your kids about the good things that happened in the past, and what might happen in the future. "Before the family goes to bed each night, we talk about what we're going to dream about," says Shannon Rebolledo, a Wichita, KS, mother of three children under 5. "Usually, it ends up being dreams about things the kids really loved during the day."
Savoring the past is particularly helpful at creating happiness, says Bryant, because it lets you milk a single event. Research has shown that during these reminiscences, the brain actually reexperiences its original sensation of pleasure. Susie Rolander, a mother of three girls under age 8 in New York City, joins her family in saying thankful prayers each night. In her own, she always includes her late mom. "The girls didn't know her, but just thinking about her this way increases my happiness because it brings her into our everyday."
"There are plenty of adults who won't look back on things that are gone forever because they fear it will make them sad," says Bryant. "But we can teach our children that we can relive moments that were precious to us and, in doing so, enjoy them again."
Spread Out The Joy
Your kids may constantly bug you for things they want. But studies consistently show that having everything one desires is no recipe for happiness. In fact, researchers have found that, given a choice, people will spread out rewards rather than receiving them all at once. They intuitively go about creating the contrast we all need in order to see our good fortune more clearly.
"It's like being in California—you don't appreciate a seventy-degree sunny day there," says Manhart. "But then you come back to Nebraska, and it is zero and gray, and you do."
Spreading out special experiences and treats provides families with a way of focusing their attention and creating the contrast that, Bryant's research indicates, brings us real happiness. It should also be good news to those parents who stay up at night worrying about not being able to give their kids those jeans they want or that expensive summer camp.
"Even if you could give your family everything, any new thing they got would mean very little," explains Bryant. "But for someone who has nothing, the smallest of treasures can be overwhelmingly wonderful."
Focus On Your Circle
In an economic time when so many are struggling to get by, it's easy to fantasize that a little more wealth or success is the key to greater joy. So perhaps there is no better time for this reminder: All the studies on the subject show that the key and consistent element in the lives of very happy people is close personal relationships. Period.
"Human beings are meant to be together," says Gregg Easterbrook, a father of three and author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. "Having good, supportive relationships is ninety percent of life."
Conversely, dissatisfaction develops when people allow those things that they incorrectly perceive to bring happiness—things like awards, money and even education—to take away time spent with loved ones and helping others.
Kids often have a way of poignantly reminding you of this simple truth. Rebolledo's 5-year-old son, Raef, told her recently he couldn't wait to go on vacation to the beach. But it wasn't the sand or surf he was most looking forward to. It was the fact that neither Rebolledo nor her husband would be bringing their BlackBerrys along. "Just being with us," says Rebolledo, "that's all he really wants."