Everything I Know About Happiness I Learned from a Child
Lesson 2: Play Hard
That kids are so often on the move — scrambling up a jungle gym, hurling
themselves into a game of dodgeball — is part of the reason they are so upbeat.
The mood-enhancing effect of physical activity has been well documented: In one
study, 9 and 10 year old children reported feeling happier after 15 minutes of
moderate exercise than after passively watching a 15 minute video. An even
shorter burst of exercise is enough to change an adult's state of mind,
according to researchers at Northern Arizona University; they found that just
10 minutes of aerobic activity improves mood, increases vigor, and lowers
fatigue in adults. And the benefits of exercise are lasting, says Edward
McAuley, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement) at the
University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign. He asked research subjects to engage
in moderate activities, such as walking and stretching, three times a week,
gradually increasing each session from 10 to 40 minutes. After five years,
those who continued to be active were not only fitter, but happier.
"Physical activity has a positive effect on people's perceptions of their
own capabilities, which in turn increases their sense of wellbeing,"
McAuley says. "And this isn't about running marathons. Moderate, brisk
activity can be just as effective in getting these results." Instead of
simply adding treadmill time to your daily routine, opt for a kidstyle workout
— the physical play that experts call "active leisure." Rather than
plopping down in front of the television, invite your kids outside for a
Frisbee toss or a run through the sprinklers. Take a walk with your spouse,
play with your dog. Or follow Maureen Ahearn's lead: "I doubt that I would
blast silly music and dance around the house if it weren't for my kids,"
she says. "That's a mood booster any day!"
Lesson 3: Listen to Your Body
"Sometimes my 3 year old son will tell me, mournfully, 'I just need to
cry right now!'" says Adrienne Boxer, 32, of Portland, OR. "So I let
him, and after his venting session, he's back to normal. Kids know when they
need a good cry, a nap, or a snack." Adults can profit from reconnecting
with that kind of natural self-regulation, says Lyubomirsky, especially when it
comes to getting enough rest. "We focus on diet and exercise," she
says. "But Americans get way too little sleep, and that's just as
important." A University of Pennsylvania study found that people allowed to
sleep only four and a half hours a night for a week felt sadder, angrier, and
more stressed than people who got a full night's sleep (about eight hours). And
an analysis of 56 sleep studies showed that sleep deprivation affects mood more
than it affects either cognitive skills or physical performance.
So how does a busy mom get more (or at least better) sleep? First, get
enough daily sunlight, since changes in light signal the brain to regulate your
sleep-wake cycle. At night, make sure the kids' bedtime is at least two hours
before yours. Don't exercise too close to bedtime. And while it may seem like a
good idea to wait until the kids are asleep to motor through household chores,
you'll pay in the long run with exhaustion and stress. Kids will choose a happy
parent over a tidy house any day.