Photosteach To Be Happy

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Illustration by Ethan ThorntonThe author used to be afraid of the dark. Then she became a backcountry trail caretaker—and learned to love the night.

I remember how I used to look at the woods at night. You see them in every horror movie, right before you lose cell signal, and there’s nowhere to go in the sudden snowstorm except for the creepy cabin at the dead end of the gravel road.

I lived in that cabin—briefly. On Camel’s Hump in Vermont, there’s a ranger cabin with no electricity and a bona fide graveyard behind it. It’s the darkest place I’ve ever seen. Thick treetops block every bit of light. After a summer spent hiking the Appalachian Trail, I’d lucked into a job as a caretaker on Vermont’s Long Trail. The cabin, my fellow caretakers assured me, was haunted.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But that first night, I heard things that made me believe. I heard nails scrabbling against wood, water splashing where there was no tub or sink. I pulled on my headlamp and tried to find the source. I failed. I barely slept.

The morning light revealed a closet door I’d overlooked. Inside was a handcrafted mouse trap: a stick covered in peanut butter that revolved over a bucket of water. Several mice had met their end. Sick to my stomach, I dumped their soggy corpses outside.

After a couple days at the cabin, I moved partway up the mountain to Hump Brook tent sites. Hump Brook was spectacular. For starters, it wasn’t in a hollow, so it didn’t get dark in the late afternoon, like the cabin did. My tent made a cozy shelter, with zero deathtraps or dark corners. Hump Brook, allegedly, had a haunted stream that spoke with a child’s voice, but while the stream babbled, it never seemed unfriendly.

Fall turned the birch leaves bright yellow, and the chill chased the hikers from the woods at sunset, freeing me from educational talks about composting privies. After dinner at another caretaker’s site, I wasn’t the only one heading down the trail. A barred owl flew with me, keeping me company almost the entire way. It had a face like a skull, and I was alone in the dark, but we both belonged there.

Besides, Hump Brook was a place where other people got scared. Once, an older couple from New York got lost on the mountain. I found them shouting in the dark and led them down to their car with my headlamp; they rewarded me with thanks and bottles of Perrier. The woman in her fur coat looked like she’d teleported from Fifth Avenue. I was a feral human: dirty, deep into my 10-day shift, and entirely comfortable in the dark. A change had taken place. The woods were my home.

The following season, the Green Mountain Club sent me to Little Rock Pond. In the evening, after most of the hikers had retired to their tents, I realized something nifty happened at dusk.

Photosteach

It takes place just after sunset, when the thru-hikers are already snoring. The birds go silent. Bats flit across the sky, black cutouts against a slightly-less-black backdrop. Waves lap on the rocks, and a beaver tail slaps the water, announcing the beginning of the night shift. I revel in the familiar sounds and forgo a headlamp; I know every inch of trail. It’s a wonderland, and after dusk, it’s all mine.

There’s a canoe stashed in a place only I know. I jump in, push off, and paddle my way across the lake. A year earlier, I’d watched a meteor shower reflected in a similar lake. It was spectacular, but I’d been happy to get back to my tent. Now, out on the lake, I’m part of the night. I paddle quietly. After all, I don’t want to scare anyone.

LEARN MORE:

  • Meet a woman who lived in a teepee—and hear what she learned.
  • Take the kids on a night hike!
  • Read more personal essays in our Journal archive…and email [email protected] with your own.

For many parents, raising happy children is the holy grail of parenting success. But too often, we think happiness is about those fleeting moments of getting what you want. Lasting happiness is actually much more complicated, but much more rewarding. And yes, you can dramatically increase your child's chances of being happy, just by the way you raise him or her.

What makes a happy child who grows into a happy adult? Since happiness is a by-product of emotional health, this whole website is about helping you raise a happy child, from meeting your infant's need to be soothed, to helping your child develop optimism. But let's talk specifically about what makes humans happy.

The latest research on happiness gives us surprising answers. Once survival, safety and basic comforts are assured, external circumstance doesn't affect our happiness level much. Our genes certainly contribute, but their affect can be ameliorated to ratchet up our happiness set points to a higher level. The largest determinant of our happiness turns out to be our own mental, emotional, and physical habits, which create the body chemistry that determines our happiness level.

We all know that some of us tend to be more upbeat than others. Part of this is inborn, just the fate of our genes that give us a happier mood. But much of our mood is habit.

It may seem odd to have happiness referred to as a habit. But it's likely that by the time we're adults, we have settled into the habit of often being happy, or the habit of being largely unhappy.

Happiness is closely linked to three kinds of habits:

  1. How we think and feel about the world, and therefore perceive our experiences.
  2. Certain actions or habits, such as regular exercise, eating healthfully, meditating, connecting with other people, even -- proven in study after study -- regularly smiling and laughing!
  3. Character traits such as self-control, industry, fairness, caring about others, citizenship, wisdom, courage, leadership, and honesty.

In practice, these character traits are just habits; tendencies to act in certain ways when confronted with certain kinds of situations. And certainly it makes sense that the more we exhibit these traits, the better our lives work, the better we feel about ourselves, and the more meaning we find in life -- so the happier we are.

Some of the habits that create happiness are visible, the ways Grandma told us we ought to live: work hard, value relationships with other people, keep our bodies healthy, manage our money responsibly, contribute to our community.

Others are more personal habits of self management that insulate us from unhappiness and create joy in our lives, such as managing our moods and cultivating optimism. But once we make such habits part of our lives, they become automatic and serve a protective function.

How can you help your child begin to develop the habits that lead to happiness?

1. Teach your child constructive mental habits that create happiness.

Managing our moods, positive self-talk, cultivating optimism, celebrating life, practicing gratitude, and appreciating our connected-ness to each other and the entire universe. Build these into your life together so you model them regularly, talk about using them, and your child will copy you.

2. Teach your child self-management routines that create happiness.

Regular exercise, healthy eating, and meditation are all highly correlated with happiness levels. But you and your child may have your own, more personal strategies; for many people music is an immediate mood lifter, for others a walk in nature always works.

3. Cultivate fun.

The old saying that laughter is the best medicine turns out to be true. The more we laugh, the happier we are! It actually changes our body chemistry. So the next time you and your child want to shake off the doldrums, how about a Marx brothers movie?

And here’s a wonderful tool: smiling makes us happier, even when we initially force it. The feedback from our facial muscles informs us that we’re happy, and immediately improves our mood. Not to mention the moods of those around us-- so that feedback loop uplifts everyone.

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4. Model positive self- talk.

We all need a cheerleader to help us over life’s many hurdles. Who says we can’t be our own? In fact, who better? Research shows that happy people give themselves ongoing reassurance, acknowledgment, praise and pep talks. Talk to yourself like someone you love, aloud so your kids can hear you.

Photosteach To Be Happy

5. Cultivate optimism...

...it inoculates against unhappiness. It’s true that some of us are born more optimistic than others, but we can all cultivate it. Click here for 'How you can help your child become more Optimistic'.

6. Help your child find joy in everyday things.

Studies show that people who notice the small miracles of daily life, and allow themselves to be touched by them, are happier. Daily life overflows with joyful occurrences: The show of the setting sun, no less astonishing for its daily repetition. The warmth of connection with the man at the newsstand who recognizes you and your child. The joy of finding a new book by a favorite author at the library. A letter from Grandma. The first crocuses of spring.

As Albert Einstein said,

'There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.'

Children learn by our example what's important in life.

7. Support your child to prioritize relationships.

Research shows that people who are happiest have more people in their lives, and deeper relationships with those people. Teach your child that while relationships take work, they're worth it.

8. Help your child develop gratitude.

'We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.' -- Frederick Keonig

Many people think they can't be grateful until they're happy, meaning until they have something to be grateful for. But look closely and you'll find that it's the opposite: people are happy because they are grateful. People who describe themselves as consciously cultivating gratefulness are rated as happier by those who know them, as well as by themselves.

Happy

Children don’t have a context for life, so they don’t know whether they are lucky or unlucky, only that their friend Brendon has more expensive sneakers. But there are many ways to help children learn to cultivate gratitude, which is the opposite of taking everything for granted. (Hint: Think modeling, not lecturing).

9. Accept all emotions.

Life is full of joy, but even for the happiest person life is also full of loss and pain, and we have daily reasons to grieve, large and small. Acknowledging our sad feelings isn't focusing on the negative, it's opening ourselves to the full range of being human. Accepting those uncomfortable sad feelings actually deepens our ability to take joy in our lives.

Photosteach To Be Happy

So choosing to be happy doesn't mean repressing our feelings. It means acknowledging and honoring all our feelings, and letting ourselves feel them. That allows us to move through the feelings, so they start to dissolve.

With your child, simply empathizing with her upset feelings will allow her to feel them, and will help the feelings start to evaporate so she can move on. This is not a process that can be rushed, so give your child (or yourself) whatever time you need.

10. Help him learn how to manage his moods.

Most people don’t know that they can choose to let bad moods go and consciously change their moods. But practice in doing this can really make us happier. You can practice this by:

  • Monitoring your own moods.
  • Allowing yourself to feel the emotions while you hold yourself with love.
  • Noticing any negative thoughts that are giving rise to the emotions. ('My child shouldn't be acting this way! He'll grow up to be a terrible person if he does this!')
  • Choosing a thought that makes you feel a little better. (For instance, 'My child is acting like a child because he IS a child. He won't always be like this.')

Of course, the hard part is choosing to change a bad mood. While you're in it, it's hard to take constructive action to change things. You don't have to go from desolate to cheerful. Just find a way to help yourself feel slightly better. That empowers you to actually face what's upsetting you, and try to solve it. Sometimes just changing our the way we're thinking about a situation really shifts things. So, instead of 'How can he be nasty to me like that, with all I do for him?!' you might try

'It's normal for children to get angry at their parents. He's struggling right now, and he needs me to try to understand him.'

How to help your child with her moods? Sometime when she's in a good mood, talk with her about strategies for getting into a better mood: what works for her? Share what works for you. Then, when she’s in a bad mood, start by empathizing. After she's had some time to feel her upset, ask her if she wants help to change her mood. Even if she’s able to choose a better mood only one out of ten times initially, she’ll soon start to notice how much better her life works when she does it.

11. Counteract the message that happiness can be bought.

As parents, we need to remember that we are not the only ones teaching our children about life. They get the constant media message that the goal of life is more money and more things. Ultimately, what we model and what we tell them will matter more, but we need to confront those destructive messages directly.

12. Help your child learn the joy of contribution.

Research shows that the pride of contributing to the betterment of society makes us happier, and it will make our children happier too. Our job as parents is to find ways for them to make a positive difference in the world so they can enjoy and learn from this experience.

“Happiness is a by-product of character. In people who are developing a strong character, there is a dramatically higher level of happiness than in those who live to chase after the next good time.” -Pat Holt and Grace Ketterman, MD


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