It seems that there is a surplus of advice and information about how to be happier. So what is the real story, and is it possible to help our kids be happier? How can we make our little ones sturdier or less inclined to feel sadness or worry? After all, we as parents are as happy as our least happy child!
Recently, neuroscientists have been busy at work studying the brain and have gained a deeper understanding into this mystery, and their insights have the potential to create an “upward spiral of happiness” in our lives.
1. BE GRATEFUL: The state of being grateful actually affects your brain in a positive way by boosting the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which, by the way, are exactly what a lot of antianxiety and antidepressant medications do. So, by feeling thankful and appreciative, your brain stem region becomes activated and produces more dopamine and serotonin. Sometimes it is hard to feel grateful when you are feeling overwhelmed, really down, or when there seems to be nothing to feel grateful for. Luckily, however, just the search to find something you are grateful for is what matters! In other words, you do not have to find gratitude; what counts is remembering to look. Try jotting down on a notepad every night five things you are grateful for. You can even help your children with this activity. The list does not have to contain big ticket items like a planned trip to Disney, but instead should include small things such as your puppy’s joyful recklessness as he gnaws on his toy.
2. LABEL NEGATIVE FEELINGS: If you or your child is feeling melancholy, you must give your feelings a name! Perhaps angry or worried, concerned or conflicted? Researchers have found that putting your feelings into words or recognizing emotions actually lessens their significance, thereby improving your mood. Further, repressing feelings does not help, and can even backfire on you. Practice labeling your feelings and help your child find the right word or phrase to label their feelings. The ancient practice of meditation has used this technique for centuries…so off to yoga you go! And bring your child!
3. MAKE THAT DECISION: Have you ever noticed that immediately after making a decision, your brain becomes quiet? Brain science reveals that you can reduce worry, anxiety, improve feelings of control, AND boost pleasure simply by making a plan or setting a goal! Yep, this action releases the rewarding neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain. What is important to remember about this is that the decision you choose does not have the be the absolute best one; it just has to be a good one. In fact, science has proven that being a perfectionist can actually overwhelm the brain and create more stress. So, recognize that “good enough is almost always good enough,” and practice saying that to yourself!
4. THE POWER OF TOUCH: MRI experiments have revealed that relationships are key to making your brain feel happy. For example, simple touches like handshakes and pats on the back are incredibly powerful. Science also shows that touching actually reduces pain by releasing neurotransmitters like serotonin, and research has proven that getting five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness. (Sadly, texting does not have the same effect on the brain.) So go hug your child today!