Making It Count, Not Counting Down

The most precious commodity we’re given is time. Wishing ordinary moments, days, and months away waiting for the “special” ones misses the point.

It was the champagne that got me thinking.

Which was strange, really, as it usually has the opposite effect.

But it was the bottle of champagne. The bottle that I had walked past every day in the kitchen for months. The bottle that had been left for so long that it had gathered dust. The bottle, which I had generously and thoughtfully been gifted for my last birthday, but which still stood, unopened, with my next birthday almost drawing into sight because I was determinedly and purposefully saving it for a ‘special’ day.

Then I started thinking – what am I waiting for?

This might sound, perhaps fairly, like an excuse to drink the champagne. Which it kind of was.  But still. I couldn’t shift a feeling – a feeling that, perhaps, I was knowingly and flagrantly wasting time whilst waiting for that ‘special’ day to arrive. 

Later, I was helping my daughter open her advent calendar. At only 16 months she doesn’t need a lot of help. She knows exactly what’s behind that foil and precisely how to get to it. But what she doesn’t know is why she’s been given this glorious treat.

She doesn’t know that she’s having it as a way of ticking off the days to get to another date, a little way in the future. She doesn’t know that the opening of another window means that another period of time has passed on the journey to get to the real reward – Christmas Day.

As I watched my daughter happily discover her prized chocolate, I thought to myself: ‘How often am I doing this?’

Counting down. Pushing aside time to get to the ‘good stuff,’ the nice times, the special moments. Mentally marking hours to the weekend. To holidays. To birthdays. Or even, on a wet, cold Monday morning, the time standing between me and going home. How often do I think this way? How often am I just waiting, looking over the horizon into the future, completely ignoring the here and now.

Like when I was pregnant and locked in those last few weeks before baby arrived, absolutely crawling the wall, imploring the universe to let time pass quicker. I wish now I’d relished those moments of peace and serenity. I wish I’d spent it reading or writing, not pacing and worrying. What about those months leading up to my wedding, when I’d gleefully turn over another page on the calendar, happily crossing off the weeks that stood between me and my big day.

How wasteful. It’s not like I have an endless supply of time on my hands to fritter away so frivolously. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that the most precious commodity I have is time.

Waiting can be good. It can be exciting. It can build a lovely sense of anticipation, especially at this time of year as we head towards the glorious crescendo of Christmas Day. But in the waiting, we need to make sure we don’t miss the moment. The now.

Because the now is special, too. Here. Right now. In this moment. This is special. We just need to look around us and see.

I don’t want my daughter to learn that life is a constant state of anticipation. She needs to enjoy the journey. Her life is indescribably precious – I want her to feel the richness of every day, even the mundanities. I want her to find value in the ordinary, to see that even on a day beset by problems and worries, even through sadness and unhappiness, she can still find beauty and meaning.

But most of all, I want her to embrace her days and live, truly live, every, single one of them. I want her to completely and utterly throw herself full tilt at life. 

One day, that tomorrow we are waiting for, over there in the future, won’t come. Life is what’s happening right NOW.

So…

Buy that dress.

Book that holiday.

Tell that someone you love them.

Write that letter.

Sing that song.

Take that risk.

And drink that birthday champagne.

It’s not about the countdown. It’s about making the days count.

The Good Kind of Peer Pressure: How Friends Impact Happiness

Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing. Our kids’ friends play an important role in their attitude, health, and overall happiness.

Who would have thought that trolls could teach us about happiness?

When my children begged me to see the new “Trolls” movie a couple weeks ago, I was a bit shocked. When I was a kid in the 80s, trolls were scary and unappealing, to say the least. After quickly reviewing the movie trailer, I decided that it was appropriate and actually appeared to have an uplifting message.

One of the movie’s main lessons is how vital friends are in boosting our mood and making us feel happier. Poppy, the troll princess, is perpetually gleeful and optimistic. She leads the other trolls in singing, dancing, and hugging all day long.

One troll does not buy into all this happiness. While the rest of the trolls are bright and colorful, Branch is grey and constantly grumpy and negative. Poppy is constantly trying to get Branch to smile and join the rest of the group in being cheerful all day. Throughout their adventures to protect the trolls from their enemies (called Bergens), Poppy and Branch grow closer.

When Branch was a young boy, his grandmother was taken away by a Bergen. He blamed himself for her disappearance because she was distracted by his beautiful singing and did not see the monster approaching. He became sad and depressed, losing his color and ability to feel joy.

Towards the end of the movie, Poppy faces a challenging moment and loses hope. As she begins to turn grey, Branch knows that he has the power to cheer her up. He sings an inspiring, loving song. Much to Poppy’s surprise, Branch comes full circle and helps her return to her happy self. The two trolls then hug each other and their color returns, brighter than ever.

This powerful scene shows how friends can make us feel better and pull us out of our darkest moments. What lessons can we learn from Poppy and Branch to pass along to our children?

How positive peer pressure works

We often hear about the many negative aspects of peer pressure, but there is a flip side to it if harnessed in the right way. As we see in the movie, friends can play a major role in building our happiness. Positive peer pressure occurs when friends try to influence other children or teens to do something positive, proactive, or productive. This encouragement improves the behavior and attitude of the individual, leading to positive change and growth.

Positive peer pressure can influence both thoughts and actions. When children are inspired to think more positively about themselves, their entire life improves. They can overcome negative self-talk and low self-esteem, allowing them to live happier, more productive lives.

Children look to imitate their peers from an early age. Studies show that happiness is contagious, so we can hope that our children surround themselves with cheerful friends. A Harvard Medical School study found that one person’s happiness spreads through their social group even up to three degrees of separation, and that this effect can last as long as a year. They actually determined that having a happy friend can improve our likelihood of being happy by 15 percent.

How relationships impact our happiness

Poppy was persistent in trying to cheer up Branch throughout the movie. Eventually, her hard work paid off so much so that he found happiness, and then channeled it to make Poppy feel better as well. Scientific research in the world of positive psychology indicates that one of the most critical components of happiness is the relationships we have with others.

Happiness experts Ed Diener and Martin Seligman compared the happiest to the least happy people. Their research found that the happiest individuals were highly social and had the strongest relationships. Actually, good social relationships were necessary for people to feel happy.

Additionally, research led by Robert Waldinger at Harvard University that followed the lives of people for more than 75 years concluded that relationships are the key to a happier life. The happiest and healthiest participants in the study maintained close, intimate relationships. According to Waldinger, the people who tend to be more isolated than they want to be from others are less happy, their health declines earlier, and they live shorter lives than people who are connected to others. He also explained that it’s not about how many friends we have, but the quality and stability of those relationships throughout our lives that really matters.

Why friends can help reduce depression

Branch represents a huge contrast to the other trolls in the movie. He is gray, always finds the negative in a situation, and isolates himself from his community.

Sadly, depression is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, two out of 100 young children and eight out of 100 teens may have serious depression, causing them to feel discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life. Additionally, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in the United States indicated that 10.7 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds had at least one major depressive episode during 2013.

One of the best ways for our children to overcome feeling blue is to spend time with their friends. Because of positive peer pressure, a caring, upbeat friend can help improve their mood. In a recent study, scientists found that happy friends can help teenagers beat depression.

Feedback from 2,000 American high school students was analyzed to investigate whether the moods of students influenced one another and if this could impact levels of depression among teens. They found that depression does not spread among peers, but a healthy mood (not feeling depressed) actually does. By surrounding themselves with friends – especially happy ones – teens can significantly reduce their risk of developing depression, and improve their ability to recover from it.

Positive friendships were much more effective than using antidepressants.

What can parents do?

So, what does this mean for parents trying to raise happy kids? It is critical that we pay attention to the type of friends our children are attracted to. If there are any red flags, we can redirect them to more positive choices – friends they can look up to and who inspire them to become the best person they can be. We can also instill the importance of building positive relationships by doing the same in our own lives.

Finally, we can build a positive community for our children from a young age by participating in group activities such as playdates, team sports, community service projects, neighborhood gatherings, and other relationship-building events.

The Importance of Embracing Your Own Definition of Happiness

There’s no rule that says what makes someone else happy has to do the same for you.

“Isn’t this amazing?!” my ex-boyfriend shouted, the wind flattening floppy brown hair against one side of his head, a dried saltwater crust over the part of his face not currently drenched in spray.

Shivering, nauseated, and wetter than a penny in a fountain, I looked out over the side of the sailboat and replied, “Yeah, it’s really great. Like, beautiful and stuff.”

I spent the first three decades of my life on a wild goose chase, attempting to track down happiness using directions that had worked for others. I tried road trips. Fail. Movie marathons. Fail. Lazy Sundays, cooking, spontaneity. Fail, fail, fail.

Then I gave birth to a baby who spent most of the day writhing in pain. In and out of Seattle Children’s Hospital her first year, I would have done anything to make her happy. So I did. Since the only place she smiled was the aquarium, we moved to be closer to the fish. I let go of “shoulds,” and just followed her joy.

Attempting the same with myself, I started doing the stay-at-home mom thing my own way. Scheduling. Socializing. Busyness. Color-coding. When we greeted friends at Toddler Time every Tuesday morning at 10:25 A.M. (green square on the calendar) after a trip to the gym (red square), I felt utterly content.

But I still wondered what was wrong with me. Why do I need to feel productive, even lying on a beach? (“That’s two books in two days,” I’d smile, finally able to enjoy the sun’s kiss and sand’s scratch.) I ached to be like the characters in novels for whom all noise fades, the sunset speaking to them with greater clarity than human language allows.

My jealous gaze followed a pair of moms who jumped off the train and headed for Puget Sound on a whim. I even envied those who paid a high price for their fun. How wonderful would it be to say, “Heroin? Sure! Why not?”

I’m a Californian after all: why can’t I be happy hanging loose?

Then a message from above — well, technically, across — showed up in my Facebook feed. Humans of New York quoted an NYU professor explaining:

Happiness [is] a mixing board with several different dials: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Everyone’s mixing board is set differently. There’s no one way to be happy and there’s no wrong way to be happy. I may draw my happiness from relationships, while somebody else may need to be constantly engaged in the pursuit of a goal.

Mind. Blown.

Just as it was when I read about introverts recharging alone and extroverts recharging together. I’d always thought people who didn’t want to hang out during downtime secretly didn’t like me. I also felt thoroughly defective after my introverted mother asked, “Why do you need company every minute of every day?” That is, until I read that I’m just built differently, and that’s okay.

In “Year of Yes,” Shonda Rhimes summarizes:

It may be different for you. Your happy place. Your joy. The place where life feels more good than not good… My producing partner Betsy Beers would tell me that for her that place is her dog. My friend Scott would probably tell me that for him it is spending time being creative… It’s different for everyone.

We all spend our lives trying to follow the same path, live by the same rules.

I think we believe that happiness lies in… being more like everyone else.

That? Is wrong.

There is no list of rules.

The University of Pennsylvania’s “Authentic Happiness” website would seem to agree. It offers questionnaires that use positive psychology to try to help individuals thrive. According to one of them, the things that fulfill me are learning, planning, critical thinking, diligence, creativity, and socializing. In other words, thinking about stuff and getting stuff done—preferably with other people.

So no, I don’t want to take my kids to the beach this afternoon. If we organize it a week ahead of time, read about the history of changing water levels, enter a sand castle competition, and invite friends, then I’m game.

That doesn’t make me a stick in the mud. I am one type of stick among many. And I’ll be happiest if I luxuriate in my favorite blend of dirt and water, rather than wallowing in someone else’s. 

Since the same is true for my family members, the key to thriving relationships can’t be just pursuing my bliss with others in tow. So I’ve stopped trying to make my kids and husband happy the way I think they should be. Instead I observe their reactions and moods, take mental notes when they’re most engaged, and try to replicate those conditions — playing from their mixing board rather than mine sometimes.

Now that my oldest is in school full time, leaving only afternoons to reconnect with me and her two siblings, that means skipping the fish and other recurring outings. Instead we play each day by ear, usually staying in to construct fairy traps and make mini-s’mores (or, more realistically, to whine over who got the fanciest trap or most graham cracker). As long as I pencil in “unstructured time at home” (purple square), I can work with that.

We all find joy disparately. Accepting that fact is what enables us to be happy together.

How To Improve Your Child’s Mood With Colors

By considering the lessons of artists, interior decorators, and advertisers how can we as parents use the science of color to guide our children’s mood?

For thousands of years, color has been thought to have power over our emotions. Artists, interior decorators, fashion designers, and advertising agencies utilize the meaning of different colors to influence human behavior and attract customers. By considering the lessons of these experts, how can we as parents use the science of color to guide our children’s mood? Does the color we paint their rooms really affect how happy they feel or how soundly they sleep?

History of color psychology

Several ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, used color for healing purposes as far back as 2,000 years ago. This type of therapy is called chromotherapy, light therapy, or colorology, and is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment.

It is believed that color therapy uses the visible spectrum of light and color to change a person’s mood and their physical and mental health. Each color is part of a specific frequency and vibration that can affect certain energy, or chakras, in our body.

Practitioners also believe that certain colors entering the body can activate hormones causing chemical reactions that ultimately influence emotion and help the body heal. Red, for example, is used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation. Orange heals the lungs and increases energy levels. Blue treats pain, while indigo cures skin problems. Finally, green relaxes patients who are emotionally unbalanced and yellow invigorates those suffering from depression.

How color impacts mood

Psychologists have found that color can influence how we feel and can even cause physiological changes in our body. Keep in mind, however, that there are different interpretations of color’s impact on emotions depending on culture and circumstance.

Research shows that certain colors can increase blood pressure, metabolism, and adrenaline. Other studies have found that certain colors can improve sleep habits, boost memory, and enhance academic performance. One study discovered that seeing the color red before taking a test can hurt performance. Students who were shown a red number before taking the test scored more than 20 percent lower than those shown a green or black number.

Just as color influences our mood, it can also be used to describe how we feel. A study reported in the journal BMC Medical Research indicated that people with depression or anxiety were more likely to associate their mood with the color gray, while happier people preferred yellow.

Researchers at the University of California determined that young children chose bright colors to represent positive feelings and dark colors for negative feelings. They were even able to identify how specific colors made the children feel: red is for mad, blue is for sad, yellow is for happy, and green is for glad. Color can therefore be a very helpful tool in accessing children’s emotions instead of relying on them to tell us how they feel.

Institutions like the American Red Cross, St. Jude’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Scholastic incorporate this ability to connect feelings to colors as a way to better understand the emotions of young children. So if our children tell us they feel gray or blue, are seeing red, or feel green with envy, we will know what they are talking about can guide them through their emotions.

What each color means

Over time, studies have shown how different colors impact us in unique ways. Warm colors, such as red, yellow, and orange, stimulate emotions ranging from comfort and warmth to hostility and anger. Typically, warm colors make us feel happy and cozy. Bold shades of warm colors also help stimulate our mind and energize our body.

On the other hand, cool colors, like blue, green, and purple, relax us, but can also make us feel sad, especially if they are too dark. Despite their soothing nature, cool colors are not always welcoming and can leave people feeling removed and distant. Here’s a bit more about the impact and symbolism of colors:

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Red

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  • Excites and energizes the body, increases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration
  • Creates alertness and excitement
  • Encourages creativity
  • Increases appetite
  • Can increase athletic ability, causing people to react with greater speed and force
  • Associated with increased aggression, an inability to focus, and headache
  • May be disturbing to anxious individuals

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Pink

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  • Evokes empathy and femininity
  • Creates a calming atmosphere
  • Can become irritating over time, leading to anxiety

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Yellow

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  • Associated with positive feelings of happiness and motivation
  • Encourages creativity
  • Soft, subtle yellows promote concentration
  • Bright shades stimulate the memory and increase metabolism
  • Too much can lead to anger and frustration

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Orange

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  • Friendly and welcoming
  • Increases alertness
  • Inspires interpersonal communication
  • Puts people at ease
  • Too much can be over-stimulating

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Blue

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  • Calms the mind and body, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration
  • Minimizes feelings of anxiety and aggression
  • Creates a sense of well-being
  • Decreases appetite
  • Can even cool the body

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Purple

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  • Creates calmness
  • Encourages creativity
  • Light purple engenders peacefulness and relieves tension

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Green

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  • Symbolizes nature and promotes a serene and calming environment
  • Associated with health, healing, and well-being
  • Soothes the body and mind
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Promotes concentration

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Ways to use color in our children’s lives

Now that we know how specific colors affect our mood, what steps can we take to use color to help our children?

  • Use calming colors like blue and green in quiet areas to relax children. On hot days, dress them in blue to cool down body temperature and mood.
  • Children who have trouble sleeping or are prone to tantrums and other behavioral issues may benefit from spending time in a blue room.
  • If you want your children to sleep well, try using cool colors like blue, green, or purple. Their calming effect can make your child’s room feel spacious and relaxing, like the blue sky or the ocean.
  • Avoid painting your child’s room dark, cool colors because they can inspire gloomy, stormy day feelings.
  • Bright, warm colors may interfere with settling your child down for naps and bedtime. Save those colors for the playroom since they are known to enhance growth and development.
  • Use bright red, yellow, or orange dishes and placemats in the kitchen as these colors are associated with food and stimulate appetite. 
  • Surround your child with yellow during homework time to enhance attention and focus. Maybe a yellow t-shirt or smock becomes the go-to productivity costume. A yellow tablecloth or placemat at the homework station may help, and keep a yellow folder, pencils, and pencil case handy. If you have a small room dedicated to studying, then definitely paint it yellow!

In addition to these specific actions, spend time talking to your children about how different colors make them feel. Ask them if they agree with the research. As they get older, work with them to choose a new comforter or paint color for their bedroom. Pay attention to their artwork and the colors they use, then talk to them about why they chose specific colors and if it made them feel a certain way.

Ultimately, the more tools we have to effectively communicate with our children, the better off we’ll be. Have fun playing with color and exploring what works best for your family.

How to Be Happier in 10 Minutes or Less

By being proactive and aware of your own mind, you always carry tools that can lead you back to happiness.

You know that cascading surge of doom that we all experience from time to time, when you feel like your life is an overgrown disaster? Sometimes it can be pretty debilitating, depending on how long it lasts.

Well, I have some good news. That feeling we obliquely refer to as a “bad mood,” which sprouts from the tiniest seed of negativity, can be managed and diffused by you, in 10 minutes or less.

To outsmart a bad mood and feel happier, understand that emotions are not thrust upon us by circumstances. Our brains aren’t forced by outside events to produce particular feelings. Our neocortex, which is the center for higher mental functioning, responds to triggers in a way that best suits each situation. It decides how to react, inducing the limbic system. This system interfaces motivation and memory to fire synapses and release chemicals, creating what we identify as emotion.

But like any operating system designed for efficiency, the brain relies on past reactions to predict future ones. Sometimes, we don’t even consciously perceive an event before receptors in our mind are stimulated, sending impulses along previously forged pathways, like a mental default setting. Here’s the problem: If our default setting is fear, insecurity, irritability, or self-loathing, we spend much of our lives miserable.

But take heart, by interrupting the circuit and redirecting the reaction, we can quickly and effectively alter our mood.

The key to redirecting a foul mood is to be an active participant and not succumb to a routine of passivity. Sure, it’s easier to cruise along on grumpy auto-pilot, but each time you allow your reptilian brain to make the call, the conduits it chooses deepen.

Remember the proverb about thoughts becoming words, then actions, then habits, then character, and finally your destiny? The author is unknown, but whoever said it knew something about neuropathways. Fortunately, the adult brain retains synaptic plasticity. This means that the act of interrupting and reversing a cycle of negative emotions is habit-forming. And, there are countless ways to accomplish this.

Simply being aware of the process is a giant step in the right direction, but since humans tend to revisit the path of least resistance, passivity can be a tricky habit to eradicate. This is your disposition at stake. Don’t surrender without a fight. Instead, do these things in the next 10 minutes:

Drink a big glass of ice-cold water.

Drink it as fast as you can, even if it freezes your throat. The sudden change of temperature snaps your body to attention from the mild rush of adrenaline.

Name your bad mood.

I call mine, “I Hate to Clean.” My daughter has one named, “Recess is Mean.” This compartmentalizes the anxiety and isolates what’s really bothering you, instead of letting it seep indiscriminately across your mind.

Is your whole life awful, or do you just dread grocery shopping? Name it. Be specific about the nasty stuff and it won’t contaminate the good.

Do not use Facebook.

(I didn’t say forever, just 10 minutes.) When you scroll through social media, keep in mind that you are not so much a user as you are a commodity, tallied for ad revenue, and there is nothing more passive than that.

Go to a mirror and smile at yourself.

Smile until your reflection genuinely smiles back. Smiling — and being smiled at — triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential to the brain’s pleasure and motivation system.

Step outside and take several deep, rapid breaths.

This practice, called hyperpnoea, increases oxygen levels thus sharpening brain function and alertness. Jet fighters and other military personnel use this technique to maximize alertness.

Move.

Run up and down the stairs. Do deep knee bends, push-ups, jumping jacks, or high kicks. Dance, juggle, plank, etc. Just get your heart rate up. Evidence that exercise boosts your mood is abundant and widely accepted, with data showing changes in brain chemistry after as little as twenty seconds of active movement.   

Put five things away.

This is you being externally proactive. A cluttered environment contributes to anxiety and stress. While removing five objects may not put a dent in the mess, it’s a doable task for even the most overwhelmed.

Adjust your posture.

Most of us slump, slouch, and stoop when we’re grumpy, which underpins our attitude. Straighten your spine, pull your shoulders blades together, lift your chin, and don’t let your elbows come in front of your torso.

Physiologists have long maintained a connection between posture and temperament, noting a more developed skeletal musculature in people who describe themselves as “fortunate” and “cheerful.”

When the 10 minutes are up, you’ll feel better – even if it’s temporary — and you will always have the tools to redirect a bad mood. Stay proactive, be aware of your own mind, and remember that happiness can become habit forming.

Mama, Are You Happy?

I’ve often found excessively happy people annoying. Enter my two-year old. He’s got it in his genes and now I’m wondering if I should give it a go.

“Happy?”

My son looks up at me, his chubby face squashed against the blue sheet covering his mattress. His big brown eyes will me to say yes to his innocent question. He scrunches his face up into the cheesiest smile he can muster.

I’m sitting on the edge of his toddler-sized bed holding a diaper and a pair of shorts in my hands. I’ve asked him countless times to stand still so I can get him dressed. The sun is shining outside; the days are still hot, but the air is getting fresher as fall approaches. I want to take him to the park, and we need to go to the store to get groceries for lunch.

I do not answer his question. Instead, the words, “Come here and stand still,” fire out of my mouth. My tone of voice tells him patience is wearing thin and he stops jumping on and off the bed.

Now fully clothed he looks at me. “I love you, Mommy,” and he is the sweetest, most handsome little boy in the whole wide world again. He runs off to find his shoes. I grab my purse as we head out the door.

He asks that question a lot recently. Lying in bed, not yet asleep he hugs me, “Happy?” I’m preparing lunch; he is asking repeatedly if it’s ready yet, then says, “Happy?” Walking round the supermarket, I replace the snacks he has taken off a shelf.

“Mommy, happy?”

Am I happy? If you’d go to sleep. If you’d let me finish preparing lunch. If you’d stop demanding things from the store. Then I’d be happy. Probably.

In the wisdom of his two and a quarter years, he’s struck upon the question that will get under my skin. There are many words you could use to describe me: independent, smart, driven. But happy?

According to Gretchen Rubin in the “The Happiness Project,” some people are naturally happy. The premise of her book is that we can all do simple things to improve our level of contentment. But some people will never be as happy as others.   

I’ve often found excessively happy people annoying. What, I want to say, is there to be so happy about? These people do not realize the multiple reasons there are to be discontented with our messed up, crazy world. Apparently.

My son, on the other hand, is one of those naturally happy people. Ever since he was a baby, he was full of smiles and zest for life. I can assure you that despite the books claiming certain parenting styles will lead to a happy, contented baby, nothing I’ve done has made him that way. He inherited happy genes (just not from me).

To him everything is one big game. “It IS funny,” he shouts as he runs away with the pile of clothes I neatly folded just moments before.

“No,” I say. “It is not funny. Bring those back here now.” He runs off giggling. I breathe, long and slowly. And perhaps he’s right. When did life get so serious, I wonder? 

He is two and just as capable of an epic tantrum as the next toddler. But while I get frustrated at the supermarket he sits in the shopping cart waving his arms, shaking his butt, and singing to himself. He’s a happy kid. Here’s hoping he’ll always be that way.

My little boy, it turns out, has a lot to teach me about being here, in this present moment. He wants me to be happy too. But, in the precise moments when my son wields his question, happy is not the word that comes to mind.

This mama’s happiness project

The defining theme of my 2016 has been trying to find more happiness. I have so much in my life to be grateful for, so why did I still feel like something was missing?

I started my quest with a gratitude journal – writing three things every day for which I am grateful. But it didn’t do much for me. Yes, I am very, very appreciative of coffee. And my supportive husband. And my adorable child. But housework and toddler tantrums didn’t get any less frustrating.

Next, I tried meditating using an app called Headspace. I like it a lot. Andy, the calm, reassuring Brit who narrates the sessions likes to talk about the blue sky. It is always there behind the clouds, our job is not to try and change anything, so much as to recognize what is already true. 

Meditation promotes a quiet, nonjudgmental acceptance of whatever thoughts and emotions we have. An endless striving to be happier and a constant quest for self-improvement may actually be counterproductive.

I do enjoy the 10 minutes a day spent listening to the app. I’m becoming more mindful. But my inner toddler still wants to jump up and down screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” from time to time. I may not be destined for any sort of enlightenment just yet.

The third thing I tried was keeping morning pages. Three pages in a notebook every day. I wasn’t trying to achieve greater calm or happiness through this one. I wanted to make space for more creativity.

But it turns out this has been the most powerful tool of all. There are no rules, beyond writing three pages of longhand every day. Some days I sit and write nothing but my complaints, all the things I wish could be different about the world and my life. I stopped resisting or trying to change my negative feelings and let them out on the page where no one else would see.

My frustrations are losing their power over me. By splashing them out across the pages, I’m taking back control. I get them out of the way before I start my day. Of course, some of the negative thoughts come back day after day. I complain about the same things over and over again. But as we head into fall and the final months of the year, I see progress.

Motherhood is the biggest challenge a woman can face. There are mountains of pressure to be a particular type of mom and oceans of guilt when we all inevitably fail to live up. Being happy can be one more expectation we don’t know how to achieve. 

It turns out trying to be happy is not effective. In my journal I let the storm rain down, and the winds howl to their heart’s content. And the blue sky opens itself into my day.

So the next time my son asks, “Happy?” I will take a deep breath, smile and say yes, before kissing him on the forehead and telling him he needs to go to sleep.

Helping Your Child Develop a Growth Mindset

One of the most important attributes in children and adults is the ability to form hope. To live without hope is to live without joy, peace and happiness.

One of the most important attributes in children and adults is the ability to form hope. To live without hope is to live without joy, peace and happiness.

Everyone should be familiar with the definition of hope. But the origins of hope are more complex to distinguish.

Subconcepts of hope are optimism, a belief in oneself, and self confidence. One can hope to win the lottery or have exterior circumstances fall in your favor, but true hope is the perception that you can change the course of an outcome based on your skills, knowledge and abilities. In order to attain this true belief in oneself, a growth mindset needs to be developed.

There are two types of mindsets—fixed and growth. A fixed mindset is the belief that one’s abilities and attributes are natural and relatively unchanging. It is a belief that we are born with a certain amount of skills and intellect and those stay with us for life at roughly the same level.

A growth mindset is the belief that skills, talents, and intellect can change and improve over time. There are varying degrees between these two types of mindsets. But the more one moves to the growth mindset side, the more apt the person is to believe that hard work, perseverance, dedication, effort, and time dedicated to a craft or subject, will produce more proficiency.

How do we, as parents, help our children develop healthy growth mindsets? We can begin by emphasizing the importance of the process as opposed to the outcomes. We need to pay attention to our language, which innocently enough, can lead to a fixed mindset if not used carefully.

How many of us have told our children that they were so smart when they received an A on a test? This is not a bad thing of course because children need to be self confident and have a belief that they are smart. But what happens when the same child brings home a D on the next test? If the outcome is always an indicator of how smart they are, bringing home a D makes them feel they are not so smart after all.

Instead, when a child brings home an A, if we focus on their effort, the time dedicated to studying, and the perseverance to push through things like fatigue, boredom, or distractions, they begin to see the importance of the process instead of their natural abilities. Likewise when the child brings home a D, their self confidence is not rattled to the core because they know they could have done better if they applied themselves more.

If a child has a fixed mindset, he or she will avoid challenges because failures will indicate they do not have the capabilities to succeed. I’ve failed, so I must not be good at whatever the task is at hand. So they are not motivated to try again as this will be more proof of their limited capabilities.

With a growth mindset, a child will be more willing to try new things as it is not an inditement on their talents. Furthermore, the chid will tend to persevere with the task or activity as they have a belief they can improve their abilities.

Another strategy parents can use to help their children develop a growth mindset is to role model this effort and perseverance. Start a hobby with your child and let him or her see that you can really stink at something in the beginning and improve over time. Help him or her through this hobby so you can both improve together. Hobbies could be activities such as cooking, camping, fishing, arts and crafts, photography, sports, woodworking, chess, etc.

Yes, children tend to have more natural abilities in certain areas than others. So it may help if you start with a craft your child shows an inherent aptitude for and interest in. But remain focused on the effort and work put toward the activity. Then explore more activities outside of the child’s comfort zone and continue the development of incremental successes.

Support and encouragement are also key ingredients to helping a child develop a growth mindset. Challenging and “pushing” the child are also OK if the challenge is focused on the effort and dedication. But support and encouragement are key to developing the child’s belief that he or she can be successful.

Share examples of your past where you had to overcome obstacles and hardships. Share your failures with your child so they know failures are a part of life and they don’t make a person bad or unloveable. Share examples of famous people who have had to overcome setbacks and adversity to be successful.

We all enjoy giving and receiving gifts, and one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children is the ability for them to believe in themselves.

Embrace Your Breakdown – It Might Be The Best Thing For You

This great “Sanity of Madness” video from The School of Life reminds us how “breakdowns” can force us to course-correct.

“There’s so much pressure on us to be always rational, calm and sensible: it’s time also to say a word about the essential normality of a little madness.”

This great “Sanity of Madness” video from The School of Life reminds us that “breakdowns” can force us to course-correct by slowing us down to learn about ourselves, our lives, and adjust our priorities.

New Study Shows That People in Their 40s Are Happiest

New research published in Developmental Psychology suggests that people are happier in their early 40s (midlife) than they were at age 18.

A number of studies have claimed that happiness declines from the early 20s to middle age (40 to 60). That low point is known, of course, as the “mid-life crisis.”

Well, maybe it’s all a myth.

New research published in Developmental Psychology suggests that happiness doesn’t stall in midlife. Instead, it’s part of an upward trajectory beginning in our teens and early twenties.

This study is reviewed as far more reliable than research that came before.

Other findings:

  • People are happier in their early 40s (midlife) than they were at age 18
  • Happiness rises fastest between age 18 and well into the 30s
  • Happiness is higher in years when people are married and in better physical health, and lower in years when people are unemployed
  • The rise in happiness to midlife refutes the purported “u-bend” in happiness, which assumes that happiness declines between the teens and the 40s and cumulates in a  midlife crisis

The difference in results from other studies of happiness is attributed to longitudinal data. Past efforts to report on life span happiness are reported by the researchers as “fundamentally flawed.”

Source: University of Alberta. “New study challenges ‘mid-life crisis’ theory”  via ScienceDaily.
Journal Reference:
Nancy L. Galambos, Shichen Fang, Harvey J. Krahn, Matthew D. Johnson, Margie E. Lachman. Up, not down: The age curve in happiness from early adulthood to midlife in two longitudinal studies. Developmental Psychology, 2015; 51 (11): 1664 DOI:10.1037/dev0000052