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.