Everything I Know About Happiness I Learned from a Child
By Jessica Baumgardner
A refresher course in joy
I'll be stressed out — about a missed UPS delivery, her sleeping schedule, vacation plans — and I'll realize that Sigrid's been grinning at a pillow for 15 minutes. The vaguely Japanese print on the fabric seems to make her totally blissful. Perhaps she has a future in textile design — or maybe an infant's happiness equation is simple arithmetic (nap + milk + something to gaze at = bliss). Obviously, life gets stickier and more complicated as we age. And for many of us, the childhood wellsprings of joy shrink to a trickle. A recent Pew Research Center national survey found that only one-third of American adults are able to describe themselves as very happy.
Luckily, several new studies suggest a good way to shift that statistic: Take a few happiness lessons from the kids in your life — and the kid you once were. Here's a short refresher course.
Lesson 1: Start Small
"In church, I explained to Erin, my 3 year old, that when you pray, you quietly thank God for all of the good things you have in your life," says Maureen Ahearn, 34, of Syosset, NY, who also has a 6 year old son. "I asked her later what she prayed about, and she said, 'My cup.' She loves one in particular because it has princesses on it. I think of Erin and her cup when I'm annoyed by something, and I always feel better." Happiness and an appreciation for the small stuff are related, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and head of its Positive Psychology Laboratory. "Happy people report that they enjoy simple things like a sunny day or having lunch with a friend," she observes. They also take less for granted, and they're more grateful. A 2003 study showed that people who regularly take note of the positive things in their lives feel more overall satisfaction, more connection with others, and greater optimism than those who focus on their burdens.
Lyubomirsky recommends consciously "savoring the moment" — pausing to appreciate the positive components, large and small, of your life. But don't take the savoring itself for granted, she cautions. She asked two groups of people to regularly write down five things for which they were grateful. One group wrote three times a week, one wrote weekly, and a third control group didn't write at all. Only the once a week blessing counters reported feeling significantly happier — probably, Lyubomirsky thinks, because they avoided slipping into mindless routine.