The psychology of happiness

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While a conducive, non-threatening and a structured environment is imperative for the growth of a happy child, there are a lot of values that schools and parents can inculcate that increase the overall happiness quotient of children. Let’s see how.


In the year 1998, Martin E. P. Seligman, in his American Psychological Association presidential address, proposed pursuit of happiness and positive emotion as the first pillar of the new positive psychology. Positive psychology as a field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within them and to enhance their experiences of love, work and play. The whole branch of positive psychology is dedicated to pinning down what happiness is and everything that encompasses happiness.

To psychological researchers, happiness is a life experience marked by a preponderance of positive emotions, which can be measured. Various single or multi-item measures are used to assess the components of happiness. While some tests such as those judging the life satisfaction quotient, aim to tap the cognitive component of happiness, others such as those measuring the frequency of positive and negative emotions, aim to tap the affective component of happiness. The United Nations too every year, releases the World Happiness report, which ranks countries by the self-reported happiness of its citizens.

Happy environment: key to happiness

Children are a by-product of the direct interaction with their immediate environment. An environment that is largely composed of interactions with parents and teachers. When the environment is happy and is the one that encourages development of a sound value system, the child grows up to intrinsically happy. There are many ways in which schools and parents can teach children the true essence of happiness.

Love thyself…

To begin with, the most important element of happiness is to be in love with oneself. Happy people like themselves, are high on self-esteem and seek validation intrinsically. The first and basic thing that children should be taught is to respect themselves and have a good self-image. Schools, parents and adults in general play a critical role in the kind of self-image children create of themselves. The language we use as adults to talk our children, becomes the language of the children’s inner voice. So, it is necessary that parents and teachers stop the negative talk and criticism. It is not criticism that motivates or drives children, it is the positive talks, the faith and the trust that significant adults show in the children that motivates them and drives them to excel in life and achieve the desired heights. It is imperative that children are encouraged to develop a healthy self-esteem that is both positive and realistic. They should be encouraged to recognise their strengths and weaknesses and should be taught to better their own best. For that is the true quest of happiness.

Positive outlook towards life…

Essentially, another important factor that plays a vital role in the overall wellbeing and happiness of children is the outlook that they adopt towards life and problems in general. Inculcating a positive or an optimistic outlook towards life and encouraging children to approach problems and failures as manageable, temporary setbacks, which are limited in scope, as against adopting a pessimistic approach, goes a long way in raising happy and confident adults. When children learn that failures can be turned into successes with efforts and practice and problems can be solved with persistence, they become the controllers of their lives who are responsible for their own happiness. Instead, children who develop an attitude of pessimism, tend to attribute all life situations and happenings to external factors, losing all control of their life situations and becoming susceptible to unwarranted anxiety and stress. Various research studies have also linked pessimism with depression, stress, and anxiety (Kamen & Seligman, 1987) and optimism to better responses to various difficulties, from the more mundane (e.g., transition to college [Brissette, Scheier, & Carver, 2002]) to the more extreme (e.g. coping with missile attacks [Zeidner & Hammer, 1992]). Furthermore, optimism has also been found to correlate positively with life satisfaction and self-esteem (Lucas, Diener, & Suh, 1996).

Care and empathy…

Furthermore, there is enough evidence and psychological research to show that kindness and teaching children to care for others, has benefits for all involved. Children who care for others through acts of altruism, volunteering, or formation of communal relationships on a consistent basis tend to have better psychological well-being, including fewer depressive symptoms and higher life-satisfaction rate. The act of caring extends to something as simple as reaching out to a classmate who looks lonely, seems to be having a bad day or is struggling with an academic or social issue. It is important that schools take upon themselves to not only provide children opportunities for volunteering in order to boost their chances of getting into colleges or meeting their SUPW requirements, rather they should inculcate the value of altruism by way of adopting a school culture that encourages a balance of interdependence and independence. When children volunteer for the sake of volunteering itself, that is, are intrinsically motivated to care, as against the extrinsically motivated, the levels of well-being and happiness are greater.

Gratitude…

Another value that parents and schools can encourage and inculcate in the children is that of Gratitude. Of all the areas studied in the relatively young field of positive psychology, gratitude has perhaps the widest body of research. Robert Emmons, a leader in the field of gratitude research, defines gratitude as the feeling that occurs when a person attributes a benefit they have received to another (Emmons, 2004). Simply put, gratitude is the state or feeling of being thankful. Grateful people are happier, receive more social support, are less stressed, and are less depressed, according to modern psychological research evidence. Feelings of gratitude or the mere act of giving thanks is associated with feeling energised, alert and enthusiastic, according to a research conducted by McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang (2002). Schools and parents can witness remarkable impact in the overall wellness quotient of their children, by creating an environment where each one makes a conscious effort to thank another for doing a little extra. Children should be encouraged to express gratitude consciously on a regular basis by keeping a diary of moments of everyday environment when they were helped by another person. A simple act such as this encourages the children to notice every little thing that someone does for them, thereby making gratitude a habit.

Other factors…

Finally, we must not ignore the external factors that contribute to overall physical and emotional well-being of children. There is a great deal of supporting evidence that good nutrition, exercise and sleep are associated with improved mental well-being and, in some cases, reduced depression and anxiety. In today’s increasingly fast-paced society and high-pressure school environments, it is imperative that parents and schools encourage good eating and bed time habits and ensure that children of all age groups get at least a total of 8 hours of sound sleep. A recent research conducted at the University of Chicago by Harms in the year 2013, revealed that sleep improves memory retention and learning new tasks. Findings of various research studies have also linked sleep deprivation with obesity, diabetes, impairment in memories, thinking speed, reaction time, mood instability, impairment of judgement and cognitive abilities (Killgore,2010, Motomura et al., 2013). Also, encouraging children to indulge in physical activity of any kind as activity stimulates the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain, called endorphins that helps lower the stress levels in children and adults. Furthermore, benefits of exercise are not limited to the physical health of the children, but extend to the mental health of children, as well. Schools that encourage a balance between academic and extra-curricular activities understand the benefits and opportunities that the social interaction involved in certain kinds of exercises, such as team sports has in contributing to personal satisfaction and consequently, mood enhancement in children.

Thus good nutrition, exercise and adequate sleep along with inculcating a strong value system that encourages an optimistic outlook towards oneself and life in general, along with feelings of gratitude and kindness, are all factors that help parents and schools to bring up children high on self-esteem and happiness quotient.

Shuchita Dua Dullu, founder of Mi Confidante, is a psychologist, with over 10 years of experience in mental health counselling. Her client database includes those reporting concerns with job stress, anxiety, depression, marital conflict, work-life balance and other emotional and behavioural issues. She has worked extensively with children of age groups ranging from 2-18 years and is a staunch advocate of early identification and intervention. Her work and training sessions with children are focused on helping them learn values and develop higher order thinking skills. She regularly conducts parenting workshops and teacher training sessions on various child centric topics. She is currently authoring a book on “Circle Time”- a manual for teachers on how to conduct circle time effectively on various topics for children of different age groups.