Positive psychology experts Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan share their thoughts—and anxieties—about raising kids.
As positive psychology researchers, recently married and now pregnant with a baby due in February, the biggest reaction we have gotten has been, “That is going to be the happiest baby ever!” No pressure. As first-time parents, we have so much to learn. What works well in a psychology lab might not work well for a 2-month-old colicky baby who at 2 a.m. seems completely unaware of all the research on the importance of sleep. As we go through this learning process, we wanted to share our thoughts and hear yours, as well.
We are encouraged by the fact that change is always possible at any point in our lives. Research from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Riverside, shows that while children are born hard-wired with a happiness genetic set point, that is only the starting point. Choices we make and they (eventually) make can help them rise above their genes and their environment. And the great news is that even when we mess up, we can course-correct.
Parents teach their kids to brush their teeth in order to make it a habit. And it eventually works; most adults keep up that habit. Aside from that, can you think of another habit we keep through adulthood? Why do we stop there? Equally important to children’s health is their mindset. In order to encourage a grateful mindset, we want to express three new things we are thankful for every night at dinner. In addition, we would like to encourage exercise and two minutes of meditation for the entire family. We realize meditation might sound a bit unusual for a small child, but we’ve recently seen how schools using morning breathing exercises have created calmer classrooms. Learning to quiet our minds early on in life by watching our breath go in and out is a skill that later on improves accuracy at tasks, and rewires the brain for greater creativity, intelligence and energy. The tricky part will be making this an expected part of life, like brushing teeth. Have you parents out there had success with this for a child younger than 5.
If food is fuel for our bodies, nutrition is fuel for our brains. Even just one cup of blueberries in the morning can drastically improve a young student’s brain function in the classroom. As researchers, we know that education is extremely important—but our interest in a nutrient rich diet for our son has less to do with ideas about his eventual academic performance and more to do with his overall well being.
There is evidence that suggests a higher intake of fruits and vegetables can increase happiness and overall life satisfaction. We hope that by treating nutrient rich foods as treats instead of a concession or chore, our son will grow up eager to share in these options. Let’s be clear: we don’t want him seeing us obsess over our bodies or weight, as this can be very damaging for a child’s self image and lifelong relationship to food. Instead, we want him to see the joy to be had with healthy food—thanks to its taste and cumulative psychological benefits.
We’ve been working to better understand the neurological and practical benefits of food ourselves so we can eventually share this knowledge to our son. Healthy foods protect our bodies against disease, naturally brighten our smiles and help us maintain a sharp memory.
By introducing these foods as early and enthusiastically as possible, we hope to give our son a lifelong appreciation for nutrition that will help him lead a happy life far beyond his childhood.
If our baby were being born just 100 years ago, this would not be such a top priority; but these days, babies are coming into the human history. Technology is always at their fingertips. We have received text messages, albeit incoherent ones, from 2-year-olds. In Shawn’s newest book, Before Happiness, we look at how the brain can only process 40 bits of information out of the 11 million it receives per second. Our brains are bombarded, we are all developing cultural ADHD and the research shows us that we do not learn as well with that continuous external stimulation. That’s why we will try noise canceling in our home. We will install a white-noise machine in the nursery and not have TV and news blaring in the house, and we plan to model taking 5 percent of each week away from phones, TV and computers. Our hope is that this break from technology and information can help our brains (and our baby’s) find the “signal” more easily, which is the information that helps lead to growth and happiness.
Solid Us, Solid Baby
Babies need love and support from the moment they arrive, and their brains are wired from birth to seek out a sense of security from the caregivers in their lives. According to neuroscientist and author of Brain Rules John Medina, babies’ brains develop differently if they don’t feel security from the get-go. They are more oriented toward threats and less attached to other people.
Beyond the basic duties of feeding, bathing and clothing our little guy, we also hope to communicate love and safety in one very specific way: being verbally supportive in front of our child of each other’s positive contributions to our marriage and peaceful home. We already do this now to some degree, but we recently decided to be more conscious about “calling each other out” when either of us does or says something positive and loving. It’s the little things that we want to acknowledge, like putting the dishes in the dishwasher (which is admittedly not a little thing) or making food for the other one while he or she is working. Each time we thank one another, we strengthen our relationship. And since children not only pick up their parents’ habits, but also derive their sense of security from what they see, we think being highly expressive in a positive way will communicate security and be a win-win all around.
Have you used these strategies with your kids? What has been your parenting secret to raising happy kids? Comment below.