Science-Based Strategies for Boosting Happiness


Core Components of Happiness

When asked what they want for their child, parents often share with me that they simply wish for their son or daughter to be happy. Conceptually, this makes a lot of sense not only because it brings us joy to see those we love experience positive emotions, but also because of the additional benefits of having happy kids. Research demonstrates that youth with the combination of 1) more frequent positive emotions, 2) less frequent negative emotions, and 3) greater satisfaction with life (the three core components of happiness) also:

  • Have better physical health

  • Demonstrate fewer symptoms of mental problems like anxiety and depression  

  • Have better social relationships

  • Earn better grades

  • Have more positive attitudes towards school and learning

     

Fortunately, with the rise of the positive psychology movement in the past few decades, psychologists have shed light on key contributors to happiness. If you’re looking to boost your child’s longterm happiness you may find the information and resources below to be helpful. Still looking for more? Contact Dr. Audra Walsh today and learn how we can help!

 

Momentary Happiness vs. Lasting Life Satisfaction

When it comes to children, we might assume it’s things like receiving a new toy or taking a trip to Disney that sparks the most joy, however research by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky demonstrates that these external circumstances account for only 10% of the variance in happiness. This helps to explain why some kids in developing countries living in grass huts can be just as happy as their Western counterparts residing in large, lavish houses. The reason for this is what psychologists refer to as “hedonic adaptation.” Positive events and circumstances may contribute to a momentary increase in happiness, but don’t produce lasting gains on our positive emotions and life satisfaction.

So what else contributes to our happiness?

As you may have guessed, heredity also plays an important role, with 50% being determined by our genetic set point. Unfortunately, this non-malleable set point means that we are born with genes that cause us to feel more or less happy than others. The good news? Regardless of this set point, we can all do things to optimize our personal levels of happiness, without the deterrent of hedonic adaptation. The final piece (40%) of the happiness pie chart is “intentional activities” or the things we think and do. Studies have shown that people who are happier do things differently from people who are less happy.

Happiness Pie Chart: Thoughts and Actions (Intentional Activity) Have an Important Role in Happiness

(Lyubomirsky, 2007)

(Lyubomirsky, 2007)

Do happiness-boosting strategies that work for adults also work for youth? Yes!

This brings us to the most current research literature, which includes studies aimed at answering the question: do the happiness-boosting strategies that work for adults also work for children? Findings indicate that the answer is YES, many of the activities that improve positive emotions and life satisfaction among adults create the same benefits in children. So if you’re looking for ways to help enhance your children’s happiness (or your own!), I recommend encouraging them to try some of the science-based strategies for improving happiness below.

  • Invest in your relationships – Engage in activities that strengthen ties to those you care about. Nurture relationships with family and friends through fun and collaborative activities such as baking cupcakes, completing a puzzle, building Legos together, having an at-home “spa day,” playing catch at the park, or throwing a dance party.

  • Count your blessings – Keep a gratitude journal in which you write down five things you feel grateful for each day. Include bigger things like having a family who loves and takes care of you and smaller occurrences like hearing your favorite Taylor Swift song on the radio.

  • Share your appreciation – Ever feel like someone has gone above and beyond for you but you haven’t properly thanked them? Conduct a gratitude visit by writing a letter that expresses the reasons you feel thankful for someone then delivering it face-to-face and reading it aloud to them. Notice how their positive response makes you feel.

  • Practice acts of kindness – Do good for the benefit of others. Whether it’s engaging in a simple task like holding the door open for a stranger or a more time-intensive one like picking up garbage at a local park, research shows that you experience the most happiness when you complete five acts of kindness in one day.

  • Play into your (character) strengths – Psychologists have conceptualized a list of 24 character strengths, or positive traits (e.g., bravery, humor, leadership, teamwork), that each individual possesses to different degrees. We are happier when we skillfully apply our Top 5 character strengths in new ways. Begin by taking a survey of character strengths at www.viacharacter.org then brainstorming and carrying out novel applications of your strengths across domains of life (e.g., at home, in school, with friends, during extracurriculars).

  • Create hope for the future – Spend a few minutes thinking about your best possible self in the future. This may be your fully grown-up self, or yourself in just a few years. Imagine you have worked hard to achieve everything you desire. What does that include? Once you have a visual, write or draw a picture of this ideal self that includes the steps you will take to help you accomplish your goals for the future.

  • Savor the positive – Take time to enjoy something you would usually hurry through. Whether it’s taking the dog for a walk or eating waffles for breakfast, pause to reflect on the positive emotions you’re experiencing in that moment. Activate your senses by thinking about how pleasant it is to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell different aspects of your experience.

Looking to learn more about the science of happiness?

Check out these popular positive psychology reads!

  • The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D.

  • Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.

  • The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.

  • How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain by Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.

  • The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish by Lea Waters, Ph.D.

Still Looking for Additional Support?

Our therapists specialize in using evidence-based positive psychology strategies aimed at fostering positive emotions and life satisfaction. After an in-depth initial session we develop an individualized plan using evidence-based cognitive-behavioral and positive psychology strategies designed to help each individual thrive.  Our office is located at 6740 Crosswinds Drive N, St. Petersburg, FL 33710. We offer early morning, after school, and evening sessions. We also offer remote therapy for clients across the state of Florida.

True to our mission, we believe that happiness is for everyone. Using research-based tools we help children, adolescents, and families grow and discover the best versions of themselves. Contact us today at audrawalsh.com or send an email to audrawalsh@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you!

By Dr. Brittany Hearon Wade


References

Froh, J. J., Bono, G., Fan, J., Emmons, R. A., Henderson, K., Harris, C., … Wood, A. M. (2014). Nice thinking! An educational intervention that teaches children to think gratefully. School Psychology Review43(2), 132–152. 

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York, NY, US: Penguin Press.

Quinlan, D., Swain, N., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2012). Character strengths interventions: Building on what we know for improved outcomes. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being13(6), 1145–1163. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/10.1007/s10902-011-9311-5

Suldo, S. M. (2016). Promoting student happiness: Positive psychology interventions in schools. New York, NY: Guilford Press.