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Written by:  Carol McGarrahan, Associate Editor, Carolina Parent
Date: January 1, 2010

Smile and the world smiles back at you, the saying goes, and now a growing body of research supports the theory that positive attitudes and behaviors not only improve your sense of satisfaction with the world, but also have concrete and measurable effects on your health and well-being. And the good news: You don't have to be a born optimist to reap these benefits.

Happiness traits are now known to be a scientifically identifiable set of skills that you can learn and, more importantly, teach your children. And isn't that what most parents want for their children? For them to be happy and able to cope with life's challenges?

Experts say anyone, young or old, can learn these skills, and they have compiled solid research about what makes happy people — happy. Even small changes in everyday life can have a huge impact. Something as simple as practicing gratitude each day in your family can increase your children's happiness by 25 percent, according to studies by Robert Emmons, author of the book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

When sociologist Christine Carter became a mother, she grew interested in how she could create a home environment that encouraged "happiness habits" in herself and her children.

"As a sociologist, I deeply believe that happiness is a set of social skills that we learn, and I wanted to go about learning those skills so I could know what they were and teach them to my own children," explains Carter, who is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the soon-to-be-released book, Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

After studying the positive psychology movement for several years, Carter found a clear set of science-based, yet simple, skills to promote happiness habits. (See list of 10 steps.)

Take care of yourself first!

Carter's first chapter, "Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First," is good advice for today's "helicopter parents," who hover over children as if they are fragile beings that must never suffer hurt, discomfort or disappointment. Many parents are sacrificing much of their family life and happiness in an unending quest to protect their children.

Previous generations were not so obsessive, Carter says. They saw children as more resilient. "Our generation has become very afraid of letting children struggle in any way, and that struggle is worth something," she says.

Carter recommends parents take time to go out with friends, spend time in nature, exercise or just spend quiet time alone. One activity that doesn't result in more positivity is shopping.

A positive outlook boosts health

"Mirth and merriment . . . bars a thousand harms and lengthens life," Shakespeare said. The bard thought happier people were healthier and lived longer, and centuries later, there is science to back up his statement.

Not only can happiness be learned, it also can have profoundly positive effects on health by boosting your immune system, lowering blood pressure and reducing your risk of heart attack.
Laughter is good medicine because it generates positive emotions, notes a report in the 2004 Journal of Personality: "Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health," which was co-authored by Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

The article also notes self-reported improvements in immune system functioning in people with more positive habits. Fredrickson recently co-authored another study in the June issue of the journal Emotion that showed people who enjoy small moments of positive emotions throughout each day increase their resilience against challenges.

In a recent statement about her research, Fredrickson suggested focusing on the "micro-moments" that can help unlock positive emotion.

"A lot of times we get so wrapped up in thinking about the future and the past that we are blind to the goodness we are steeped in already, whether it's the beauty outside the window or the kind things that people are doing for you," she said. "The better approach is to be open and flexible, to be appreciative of whatever good you do find in your daily circumstances, rather than focusing on bigger questions, such as 'Will I be happy if I move to California?' or 'Will I be happy if I get married?'"

Fredrickson also is the author of the book Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.

Her research studies have reported that positive emotions:

* Broaden our thinking to help us be more flexible and see the big picture.

* Accumulate and compound over time, transforming us for the better by building resources such as strength, wisdom, friendship and resilience.

* Are the most important ingredients in determining a person's resilience.

* Help our bodies and minds cope with stress, challenge and negative feelings.

A wide body of research, including the most-publicized work by Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, The How of Happiness, shows that a whopping 40 percent of our attitude is in our own hands. About half of our happiness level can be traced to genes and 10 percent to environmental factors; the rest is up to us.

Set a positive tone for your family

Local psychologist Susan Orenstein notes the health-boosting effects of happiness and the negative effects of stress.

"There's a lot of research to show that when people are dealing with chronic stress and anger they are more likely to have heart disease," Orenstein says. "They are more likely to have high blood pressure and lowered immune systems and more likely to become ill."

Orenstein recommends that parents in particular reduce stress in the following ways:

* Practice accepting daily challenges.

* Manage their expectations to control their anger and stress response. For example, don't expect a 7-year-old to sit through a long performance, and don't expect a toddler to calmly endure a two-hour wait at a restaurant.

* Strengthen a bond as a couple since children can sense tension, and it is contagious.

* Remember that conflict is inevitable and can be a learning experience.

* Be sure family members have the basics, such as food, rest and exercise.

"One person can set a tone for learning how to show self-care, and a sense of humor also helps," Orenstein says. She also says it's important to let go of anger to reduce tension. Parents have a choice about whether they carry anger around for 20 seconds or days, she says.

Nikki Rogers, a mother of three in Apex, says she has been working on improving the tone in her own family by eating meals together regularly and working on behavior changes. Rogers, who is a teacher, says she has always used positive reinforcement with her children.

"I find myself using some of the same positive reinforcement techniques and phrases I use in the classroom," she notes. The family recently instituted a "You Rock!" program to help family members focus on positive attitudes and behaviors. Each letter in the word "rock" stands for a positive behavior, such as "r" for respectfulness. "We have only been doing this for three weeks and we have already seen some positive changes," Rogers says.

As parents, we can choose happiness habits that improve our children's outlook and longevity and decrease their risk for depression, anxiety and poor health. The bonus for parents (aside from healthier children) is that by teaching these skills, we improve all of these things for ourselves as well. The Constitution entitles citizens to the pursuit of happiness. Catching it is up to us!

Carol McGarrahan is associate editor of Carolina Parent and is catching happiness wherever she can.


10 Steps to Increase Happiness

1. Put on your own oxygen mask first. (Or take care of yourself first.)
2.  Build a village.
3.  Expect effort and enjoyment, not perfection.
4.  Choose gratitude, forgiveness and optimism.
5.  Raise children's emotional intelligence.
6.  Form happiness habits.
7.  Teach self-discipline.
8.  Enjoy the present.
9.  Rig the environment for happiness.
10. Eat dinner together.

Source: Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents by Christine Carter, Ph.D.



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