How to Raise Happy Kids

If you ask parents what they want most for their children, the majority will answer, “I want them to be happy.” But that’s hard to define. Happiness is an emotion, a momentary state of being, not a permanent state. Additionally, happiness can mean different things to different people. If we, as parents, have a goal to raise our kids to “be happy,” how do we achieve such a moving target?

Fortunately, science does offer some answers. The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest scientific study of how to lead healthy and happy lives. It started more than 80 years ago and has followed the lives of 724 participants and more than 1,300 of their descendants. Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures, and the findings have produced important lessons. This study offers youth a healthy framework for thinking about success.

The Harvard Study points to two concrete actions that form the foundation of wellness: 1) engaging in activities we find meaningful, and 2) connecting with people we care about and who care about us. If we can teach our kids to actively pursue these two things, happiness will come more easily and more often in their lives.

Meaningful Activities

The happiest people in the Harvard Study had a feeling of purpose or a sense that their life or activities were meaningful. They were clear on their values and they chose to spend their time and their resources on work, projects, or activities that supported those values. Encourage teens to identify their own values and also to pursue hobbies or passions that interest and engage them. Resist the temptation to push your teen into activities that you think will “look good” on a college application or be valued among your own social group.

Suggestions for discovering and nurturing one’s purpose involve exploring passions, setting meaningful goals, and engaging in volunteer work. You can instill this concept in your children either through role modeling those pursuits in your own life, pointing to people they admire who are pursuing their passions, or discussing the topic. Let teens know that there are many ways to find meaning in life – it could be a career, a hobby, or a cause.

Close Relationships

Perhaps the most important finding of the Harvard Study was how incredibly important close relationships are to our wellbeing. The study revealed that close relationships are better predictors of long and happy lives than money, fame, social class, our IQ, cholesterol levels, or our genetic makeup. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. The study showed that people who are lonely experience decline both physical and mentally.

Role model and discuss the importance of connecting with people we care about and who care about us. Let teens know that relationships in all their forms — friendships, romantic partnerships, families, coworkers, tennis partners, book club members, Bible study groups, etc. — all contribute to a happier, healthier life. 

The study showed that the quality of the relationships in our lives is most impactful on our wellbeing. Remind youth that relationships require effort. Relationships don’t just take care of themselves, so we must be proactive in reaching out to connect and resolving conflict when it arises.

Final thoughts…

If we don’t understand what makes us happy, we may end up making unwise decisions—for example, pursuing high-salaried jobs that take us away from our communities. Happiness is the result of engaging in meaningful activities and close relationships. Encourage your children to value and pursue these two goals and you will give them a strong foundation for happiness throughout their adulthood.

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