Q. My husband and I tend to be unhappy about many things, including the state of our government, our relationship, our jobs, etc. However, we very much want our children to be happy. How can we model happiness for them when we feel unhappy most of the time ourselves?
A. Some people are born with genetic differences that program them to be happier than others. No matter what’s going on around them, they seem to be upbeat. Most of us didn’t get the happiness gene, however, but we can learn ways to improve our overall outlook. Through therapy, even people suffering from depression can learn ways of thinking and behaving in order to be happier. You can learn ways to be happier, too, and begin to model these behaviors for your children. Happiness is important because people who are positive tend to be healthier physically and mentally, to be sick less and to heal quicker. They also tend to succeed as they wish in life.
Sit down and make a list of what you think would make you happy. Consider reading “100 Secrets of Happy People” by David Niven Ph.D. (Harper in 2006). Below are some of the “secrets” and some of my own advice as well:
1. It’s not what occurred but what you think about what occurred that affects your mood. For example, your child does something wrong and faces serious consequences. Do you think negative thoughts such as, “This is horrible. What will our friends think? Our child will never overcome this.” Or do you think positively, like, “This could be an important learning lesson for him. We’ll get through this and make changes to prevent this from happening again.”
2. Spend less time thinking and worrying about people and things that bother you. Notice when you are doing this repeatedly and refocus your energy on something else.
3. Believe that you don’t have to win every time. You can play to win, but if you lose, it’s O.K. Sometimes others need to win, too.
4. Make and have friends. All of us, young and old, can benefit from having friends.
5. Select your companions wisely. This is an excellent way to avoid getting into difficult situations and instead become involved in healthy activities. Choosing to be around positive people tends to help us be more positive and happier as well. Choosing companions wisely is very important to the success and safety of your children.
6. Keep an open mind about new ideas.
7. Let others know how important they are to you. Look for people who do this, too, and model this for your family. Doesn’t it help you feel happy when others let you know how important you are to them? You can do this for people in your life.
8. Do things for other people, especially those in need. Teach your children that doing things for others makes one feel good, i.e., feel happy.
If you practice the behaviors of happy people, notice what you are grateful for and along the way tell yourself “I am happy” (fake it until you make it). Your children will mimic your new behaviors and be happier themselves.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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