Raising Happiness with Christine Carter

May 06

Christine Carter with her daughters, Molly and Fiona

Today it is my pleasure to welcome Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, to Motherese. Christine is a sociologist and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.  For the past four weeks, we have been discussing her ten key steps to help our kids – and ourselves – lead happy lives.

Christine was generous enough to answer a few questions that arose from our discussion of her book.  Thank you, Christine, for joining us today.

1. What makes you happiest?

As an individual, hanging out with my friends and my parents (seriously) brings me the most joy — especially if we are eating!  I also find particular bliss in waking up early (if I’ve also gone to bed early), getting a cup of coffee, and getting BACK INTO BED with a book.  If I can do this during the week it is pure heaven for me.

As a parent, my happiest moments come when I’m cuddling with my kids.  I love reading with them, even if just side by side, snuggled on the same couch.  And I love hearing about “3 good things” from their day.

I think I will remember my happiest moments in life as those that took place around my own dining room table: friends, family, kids eating and laughing and talking about what we are grateful for.

2. Like your own daughters, kids these days have an avalanche of activities that they can pursue.  Given your thoughts about the growth mindset and the importance of free play, where would you draw the line between pushing kids too much and providing them with too little encouragement to try out new things?

Great question.  I wish I could give parents a decision tree for how to know when they are over-scheduling their kids, but honestly, the line is different in every kid and every family.  I struggle with this a lot myself.  Here is how I decide with my kids:

  1. Does my child really want to do the activity, or is it mostly my idea?  Is the activity I’m considering more what I want (e.g. a kid who learns to be a great team-player through years of organized sports) than what my kids want (they are BEGGING for piano lessons, but would rather die than try out for soccer)?
  2. Am I being seduced by the idea that more skills and more achievements for my kids will somehow bring greater happiness and well-being?  Is there a chance that adding this activity might actually lower well-being by cutting into too much free-play, sleep, or dinnertime? In other words, do my kids have some free-play time every single day?  Are they getting enough sleep?  Are we managing to eat dinner together 5 nights a week or more?
  3. Will adding this activity make ME more stressed, more anxious, or busy?  Will it cut into MY happiness?  Is there a way that I could make it happen without adding more to my plate?

I’m finding that very few activities meet that criteria, but when they do, they are worth it!

3. While trying to practice a growth mindset, is there a point at which we risk pushing our kids too hard (i.e. if there’s always another challenge waiting for them as soon as they’ve mastered a task)?

YES: pushing kids too hard is risky!  We aren’t talking about perfectionism here, people, which is its own particular form of unhappiness.  We shouldn’t really be “pushing” our kids at all–putting pressure on them to achieve–but rather making sure that they are adequately challenged.

Think about flow: the task is neither too easy (making it too boring to find flow) nor too hard (which causes anxiety).  You can’t push your kids into finding flow (though we can influence their environments to make it more likely).  When kids do find flow, they will also gain mastery.  Mastery IS a form of happiness.

4. What is your favorite parenting book – besides Raising Happiness, of course?

I get so much science at work that the parenting books I gravitate towards are spiritual.  I love Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings. And my favorite right now is William Martin’s The Parent’s Tao Te Ching. Here is a little excerpt from that I stumbled on last night:

Happiness is Contagious

If you always compare your children’s abilities
to those of great athletes, entertainers, and celebrities,
they will lose their own power.
If you urge them to acquire and achieve,
they will learn to cheat and steal
to meet your expectations.

Encourage your children’s deepest joys,
not their superficial desires.
Praise their patience,
not their ambition.
Do not value the distractions and diversions
that masquerade as success.
They will learn to hear their own voice
instead of the noise of the crowd.

If you teach them to achieve
they will never be content.
If you teach them contentment,
they will naturally achieve everything.

We all want our children to be happy.
Somehow, some way today
show them something that makes you happy,
something you truly enjoy.
Your own happiness is contagious.
They learn the art from you.

5. Much of your advice pertains to kids old enough to talk and to reason.  What would you say is the most important happiness habit for very young children?

Mirroring: helping them label their emotions, feel understood.  Say things like “I see that you are frustrated!” so that they learn the difference between frustration and, say, anger. The more empathy we show our very young children, the more emotionally and socially intelligent they will be.

6. In the comments section, there emerged some skepticism about the feasibility of teaching happiness.  One reader noted, “a good, full life isn’t about a destination with a bright billboard attached.”  How would you respond?

We aren’t born knowing innately the skills that will lead us to happiness, and neither are our children.  We learn them from our parents and teachers.

A good, full life is one that is full of a lot of different types of positive emotions (like gratitude, hope, and awe, just to name three favorites).  Happiness takes self-discipline, a growth mindset, emotional intelligence, the ability to cope with failure and challenge and negative emotions: all things that can be taught and practiced with children.  None of those things is a destination, or a bright billboard; they are all skills, some more fun than others to practice.

Thank you, Christine, for inspiring so many of us with your ideas on happiness and for taking the time to join us today.

Thank you, too, to all of you who took part in this first session of the Motherese Book Club.  I am especially grateful to Katy Keim of BookSnob for her insightful reviews that helped launch our discussions each week.

Stay tuned for our next pick!

Image: © Nightingale Photography.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine LaRocque May 6, 2010 at 7:03 am

I adored the book and already plan to read it again. There was so much I took from it, and so much more I still have to learn. I’m really quite thankful that I had the opportunity to read it early in my children’s lives, because I can use it to influence their entire childhoods, but also because there is so much learning that I have to do of my own before I can bring it into my parenting.

Thank you also for the extra tips here for developing happiness habits in very young children.

And for the record…getting BACK into bed with a coffee in a book is my favourite way to relax and I miss it so. I hardly get a chance with two very young children who are early risers.

Great job Kristen, this was a lovely discussion! I can’t wait to find out what’s next. (I wonder if my hunch will be true.)


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I’m with both Christines: the idea of lounging in bed with a good book is about the most wonderfully decadent thing I can imagine right now…Hmm…maybe an idea for Mother’s Day morning?

I can also relate to your idea of needing to work on happiness habits yourself before teaching them to your kids. I have to say that the biggest lessons I learned from my first two passes through the book related to my own behavior and my relationship with my husband. (I guess that means I’m fixated on chapter one!) But, like you, I anticipate using Raising Happiness as a handbook to refer to over and over again as my kids grow up.

Thanks for being such a thoughtful and devoted member of the book group, Christine!


Maureen@IslandRoar May 6, 2010 at 7:54 am

Even tho I never got the book I really enjoyed this whole thing. Lots to think about, especially as I am doing most of it looking back at grown kids. Wondering how I can still affect their happiness at these ages of 16 thru their 20′s and beyond.
Thanks Kristen!


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Thanks for joining us for our discussion, Maureen!


Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist May 6, 2010 at 8:34 am

I don’t think I realized that this was my idea of happiness until I read it: Getting up early (if I went to bed early), getting coffee, and then getting back into bed to read. Heaven.


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I think we need to start a whole new kind of book club: a group of people who forgo the rest of their activities to spend one day a week in bed reading. Now that’s a cause I could get behind!


Erica@PinesLakeRedhead May 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

It was nice to read the book and discover that the parenting decisions I’ve made based on instinct are backed up by science. I plan to give the book to my sister in hope that it will help her and her elementary school age daughters.

I really enjoyed the online book club forum and look forward to the next selection. Thanks Kristen!


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for being here, Erica! I’m glad you enjoyed the book and found affirmation in it. I hope your sister will find it as helpful as I have.

Hope to have you on board for our next pick – announcement coming soon!


Heather of the EO May 6, 2010 at 9:19 am

I didn’t join in this time (probly cause I’m reading 32 other books right now-or so) but I want to read this and have really enjoyed the discussion.
I love the excerpt that Christine shared from the book she’s reading too. This has all been good stuff. Thank you!


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Glad you enjoyed the discussion, Heather – and hope you’re enjoying your 32 other books. Let me know if you’ve got any tips. I love book recommendations from friends!


rebecca May 6, 2010 at 10:18 am

I most appreciated that you drew the connection: I, too am happiest sharing dinner with family. How many nights do my children get to have dinner all together, and, are their activities allowing for that?

Sometimes I think I’m enriching their life by giving them more…but more what? When what brings the most happiness is hanging with people we love?

I do have a follow-up question, however: When an older child does choose an activity out of love and begging and then that activity becomes difficult because life is filled with challenge…then what? You talk a lot about a chance to face failure. How do you know when it’s time to walk away, and when it’s time to stick it out?

Happiness does bloom from growth and growth is not without struggle. I watch my children bump down life’s path and try to decipher “is this the time to urge them to keep reaching for their dream?”

Allowing them to feel their truest feelings in my presence is perhaps the only way they can figure out if they have the energy to push on or move on to something else.


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Great follow-up questions, Rebecca.

I suppose that the answers will vary from child to child and from activity to activity. My gut – and keep in mind that my kids are still too young for this to have been an issue yet – would be to encourage them to stick it out while the difficulty can be fortifying and is in service of a greater goal, but to allow them to let it go once the difficulty makes them consistently miserable (e.g. extra practice leading to a piano recital might be frustrating in the short-run, but the difficulty will result in a satisfying performance; whereas continuing to play lacrosse even though a child’s efforts haven’t led to any improvement and she doesn’t enjoy it would probably fall into the second category for me).


BigLittleWolf May 6, 2010 at 11:41 am

This is a fascinating discussion, and thank you for bringing Christine into it here.

I found this particularly interesting – and also problematic:

YES: pushing kids too hard is risky! We aren’t talking about perfectionism here, people, which is its own particular form of unhappiness. We shouldn’t really be “pushing” our kids at all–putting pressure on them to achieve–but rather making sure that they are adequately challenged.

I agree, completely. But as the parent of teens with considerable talents, the reality is that we must sometimes push in order to ensure that our kids are “adequately challenged.”

I realize that none of these words are to be taken as wholly applicable to every child in every circumstance. What I appreciate in Christine’s words even here is the element of common sense (something we often forget to practice), and a recognition that childhood is precious, and should be enjoyed.

Still – the “push” versus facilitating an environment of “pull” is difficult to identify and manage. I guess we don’t ever really know if we’ve found the right formula at each stage. We must wait until our children are grown and tell us – or show us – and as we watch their ways in their own parenting.

Love the discussion. Thank you both, Kristen and Christine.


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 2:08 pm

“I guess we don’t ever really know if we’ve found the right formula at each stage. We must wait until our children are grown and tell us – or show us – and as we watch their ways in their own parenting.”

Oh dear, and I’ve always preferred jobs where there were frequent and routine evaluations of my performance!

Thank you for your presence, Big Little Wolf, throughout our discussion.


Gibby May 6, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Dinner with my family is the best part of my day. Even better? Last night I snipped off some cilantro off of my home-grown plant and added it to our feast. That little detail made me so happy.


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 2:09 pm

That sounds absolutely perfect.


Amy @ Never-True Tales May 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Great discussion here! How fun to read her answers! I hope to be able to get in on your next book selection!


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I hope so, too, Amy!


Amelia May 6, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I loved this book and also find myself thinking about rereading certain chapters over again. I found Christine’s answer about younger children helpful: how important it is to mirror and help label emotions. I really like thinking that by showing my own happiness, I am teaching my son to find happiness in life. I love watching him start to laugh just because I am laughing. I like thinking about how I can help my son recognize different emotions and how this skill will help him in the future.
Kristen, I can’t wait for the next book!


Kristen @ Motherese May 6, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I’ve certainly seen my kids pick up on my negative emotions and play them back to me so I really appreciate Christine’s point about mirroring. Now I’ve got to focus on allowing my face to show happiness and satisfaction instead of anxiety!

Can’t wait to have you join us for the next book club pick, Amelia!


Liz May 6, 2010 at 8:49 pm

I’m coming into all this very late, but I’m completely drawn in by this one post! This book will definitely be on my Read Soon list.


Kristen @ Motherese May 7, 2010 at 9:28 am

I hope you do read it, Liz, and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks for stopping by Motherese!


privilegeofparenting May 7, 2010 at 1:28 am

Even though some others in this book club I didn’t actually read the book, I did appreciate the recaps and the discussions. Although my bias has shifted more toward the importance of love and support for parents so that they can trust their gut instincts and follow through on the love, limits, mirroring, patience, balance that they would generally come to if they were loved, mirrored, supported through family, friends and community, etc.

More than anything I appreciate Christine’s spirit of love and science in the spirit of helping parents feel that support and guidance—and I appreciate Kristen for boldly putting this together.


Kristen @ Motherese May 7, 2010 at 9:30 am

Thank you, Bruce, for being here and for adding your own distinct blend of professional, parental, and personal wisdom to the mix.


Lindsey May 10, 2010 at 1:39 pm

For those of you who want to follow the work of Christine Carter, she will be talking with IONS Director of Research & Education Cassandra Vieten on a teleseminar Wednesday May 12th at 5:00 pm Pacific time… sign up to participate in the call FREE here: http://tiny.cc/8lstz
You will have the opportunity to ask Christine questions on the call.


subWOW May 11, 2010 at 10:33 pm

I appreciate how the discussion has framed being happy as a life skill rather than some everlasting goal.


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