When asked what we ultimately want for our kids, most of will say “We just want them to be happy”. It seems like an obvious goal but how many of us really understand how to get there? I decided to ask another parenting expert and someone who specializes in teaching parents how to raise happy adults. I am delighted to introduce Patrick McMillan owner of KidsCanDoAnything.com who agreed to be interviewed on the topic of happiness and kids.
Q. Most parents say they just want their kids to be happy. How do you define happiness?
A. Happiness I believe does not have a “one-size-fits-all” definition because joy, love, excitement, accomplishment, contentment, optimism or any emotion for that matter can only be felt by the individual and come from within, so what causes one person to feel positive emotion may not necessarily be the same for others.
I believe the word “happy” is used as an overall positive assessment of who we are. Saying “I am happy” is saying that at the very core of our spiritual being, which is where happiness resides, (the “self”) we feel more positive and satisfied than negative and dissatisfied. We are content and pleased with our present selves, our past experiences and we look with anticipation to our future.
Q. Do you think some kids are just happier than others, by nature?
A. I do believe in the “set point” theory of happiness in that we possess a genetic set point for happiness and emotional wellbeing. However given more recent studies we can in fact rise above and sustain higher levels of happiness regardless of our “genetic set point” for happiness, which also is thought to alter the genetics of our children and future generations. I believe nature and the entire Universe is always in a state of growth and change. However I also believe the rub here is that for our children to benefit from lasting happiness it is up to us, their parents to take the lead role in modeling happiness for our children.
Q. If a parent comes to you whose child is generally miserable, what would be the first thing you would look at if they asked for your advice?
A. The first thing I would look at in the case of the miserable child is the parent’s level of happiness, or in this case the likely unhappiness in their life and how they explain their own life events (i.e. optimistically or pessimistically) I believe that a child’s lack of emotional control can usually attributed to their parent’s level of emotional literacy and their ability, or inability to model emotional literacy and to “emotion coach” their child to help foster emotional intelligence.
Q. Do you consider yourself happy?
A. Yes I do consider myself very happy, but I also believe the unhappiness I have experienced in my life has allowed me to understand what happiness really means to me and to embrace it more every single day.
Q. Has it been a process for you?
A. Oh yes! It has been so much more than a process. It has been and still is a daily ongoing journey of learning, growing and forming new habits of thought and actions. But I must point out that though it has not always been easy and I, like everyone else, have faced huge life changing challenges along the way, putting forth the emotional effort to make a conscious choice to see things in a different and positive way has benefitted myself and my children in remarkable ways.
Q. How are your own kids influenced by your happiness?
A. Modeling happiness by making a conscious choice to BE happier is teaching my kids that we have a choice to react to situations in our lives in ways that empower and motivate us. They have also learned that our own happiness is enhanced when we help others be happy. In fact my eldest son who is in 8th grade has become the “go to” guy in his circle of friends when they need advice or cheering up. He was actually credited by a friend for saving her life when she was contemplating suicide. I honestly couldn’t be a more proud father.
Q. We want our kids to feel good about who they are. How can parents contribute to that feeling of worth we want them to have?
A. There are several ways to help our kids feel great about “who” they are and have stable, positive self-esteem and I believe one of the most important is based on the concept of developing a “growth mindset” which is to help our children recognize that it is with effort and commitment and we can achieve what we really want and who we want to be. By recognizing it is with the effort and commitment to achieve a goal or aspiration we learn our destiny is not “fixed” or based on innate ability or talent but rather our desire and commitment to do what it takes for success. But another equally as important thing we can do for our children is to help them understand that mistakes and failures must happen and they truly do contain all the opportunity for growth and learning to become who we truly want to be. By sharing how I have learned from my own mistakes and failures and how I cope with adversity is how I continue to model for my kids to do the same for themselves.
Q. When you hear about kids being depressed, what factors do you think contribute to their depression?
A. There are many factors that will contribute to child’s sadness, anxiety and even full blown depression but these negative emotional states are all based upon negative and pessimistic thinking and reacting, and this way of thinking is learned from parents, teachers and other important grown-ups in a child’s life.
I also believe that what makes a child unhappy is to see his mom or dad unhappy. With my children I know this is true so therefore I believe one of the best things I can do to see happy kids is to be happy myself. This way of thinking has helped my children tremendously as my wife and I went through our divorce.
Q. How much of an impact does our environment have on our happiness?
A. Happiness researcher and Professor of Psychology Sonja Lyubomirski from the University of California at Riverside explains in her book, The How of Happiness, the three factors that research has determined how happy we are in a three piece “pie chart”. According to studies using identical and fraternal twins raised separately, among many other studies, research has determined that 50% of how happy or unhappy we are is determined by our genetic blueprint and is, for the most part, unchangeable. Only 10% (just a sliver) is a result of our environment and life circumstances like our health, wealth, marriage, kids, possessions, etc., and changing our life‘s circumstances is not the key to happiness because these things are not completely in our control. We do however get to choose to react to the situations and circumstances in our life, which is the next piece of the pie. The remaining 40% (nearly half of the pie) of your happiness and I believe the most important part, depends on your own choice and voluntary actions toward doing what it takes to think and feel happier. However, it must be stressed that to become happier does take effort. Nothing good comes without effort and becoming happier takes focus and commitment but will eventually become “who we are”, and one of the most wonderful side effects of our effort is to see our kids follow in our happy footsteps.
Q. How important are friendships for our kids to feel happy?
A. Friendships and social connection play an extremely influential part in happiness for all human beings and giving our children opportunities to develop friendships will benefit them throughout life. But I have found that we need to be there for our children to help them understand how important it is to feel positive and happy about ourselves and “who we are” first which will inevitably attract more meaningful and long lasting friendships into our life.
Q. I often tell parents it’s not our job to ensure our kids are happy all the time. How do you feel about that?
A. I completely agree! In fact we would be doing our children a great disservice if we were to imply that one is even capable of being happy all the time. There are very important reasons human beings were endowed with the ability to feel the wide range of emotions we feel and our survival is a core reason. This in fact was one the main reasons I wrote An Exercise in Happiness© (An Emotional Fitness Program for Kids) which I originally wrote to teach my children about how their emotional system works in order to develop more control over it.
As I mentioned above I also believe the unhappiness I have experienced in my life has allowed me to understand what happiness really means to me and to embrace it every single day. It would be impossible to really understand what brings out happiness from within us if we don’t know or understand what unhappiness feels like.
Also knowing and understanding “cause and effect” allows us to see that happiness and unhappiness are the “effects” of some “cause” and that cause can be boiled down to only one thing…How we think!
Q. What else can you tell us about happiness as it relates to our kids?
A. Happiness I believe really comes down to experiencing more positive emotions throughout life than negative. How we react and respond through thought to the experiences and circumstances in our life will ultimately determine how we can asses our lives as either happy or unhappy, satisfied or unsatisfied and whether we can look back on our lives more joy and happiness than regret or sadness.
With that being said we can look at our choice to raising happy kids like putting our oxygen mask on first when flying in a plane and the cabin looses air pressure. We would be unable to help our kids if we become disoriented from lack of oxygen ourselves. So I look at my own happiness like “emotional oxygen” and by providing more to myself allows me to provide it to my children and they learn to create more for themselves. It’s like a “happiness feedback loop” in that when I become happier, so do my kids, which in turn makes me happier, and so on…
My free ebook for kids: The Ultimate Kids Guide to Happiness
An Exercise in Happiness:
Happier Kids Blog: