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Everything I Know About Happiness I Learned from a Child

Lesson 4: Get Creative

"Two Halloweens ago, when he was 4, our son, Cinco, asked to be 'a dog named Chocolate driving a Subaru,'" says Jenifer Walter, 37, of New York City. "It was wonderful to see him in his one-of-a-kind costume, driving his cardboard car through a sea of red Power Rangers. He's totally himself, unafraid of being different."

Children don't often suffer from writer's block, or freeze in front of an easel not knowing what to paint. Tapping into the unfettered creativity we had as kids — when no inner critic yammered in our heads — can make life more pleasurable.

"Many studies have shown that creativity is associated with positive mood, even joy," says James Kaufman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and director of the Learning Research Institute at California State University at San Bernardino. "Other studies have shown that people who express themselves in writing on a regular basis are less depressed, take fewer bad risks (like smoking), and visit doctors for physical ailments less often." Writing reduces physical and mental stress, Kaufman says, because creating a narrative orders our thoughts. You don't have to sit down and produce the Great American Novel; keeping a journal, blogging, or writing to a friend has the same positive effect.

"One of the hallmarks of creative activity is the feeling of flow — losing track of time because you're so involved in what you're doing," Kaufman points out. "If you experience flow, whether it's while you're amusing your child or cooking a meal, that's creative."

There are lots of ways to stoke your creativity. For example, the next time you need to buy something, make it instead — a birthday card, a loaf of bread, or a Halloween getup for next year. Or you could spend some time noticing how often you engage in creative problem solving even without realizing it.

Lesson 5: Explore More

The familiar sound loop of a 3yearold — "But why? But why? But why?" — may sometimes drive us bonkers, but in essence, it's worth emulating. Kids are dogged in their pursuit of knowledge. "My husband and I are amazed at our little gadget junkie, Larkin," says Deborah Helman, 34, of Houston. "He's just over a year old, and he's already figured out how to turn on the dishwasher and use the remote!" Larkin is as delighted as his parents when he acquires new skills by exploring. Curious people are more likely to be positive, explains research psychologist Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., of George Mason University. "They expose themselves to challenges that lead to the accumulation of knowledge or experience. This leads to improved skills, which leads to an increase in confidence and wellbeing."

But as we age, our natural sense of curiosity can wane. "We become more selfconscious and have a hard time deviating from planned activities," Kashdan says. We can, however, restore our openness to new experiences. Shake off negative preconceptions, he suggests, by going outside your comfort zone — even a short way. Talk to a stranger, eat something unfamiliar, choose books you'd normally ignore. "Afterward, come up with three things you liked about the new experience," Kashdan advises. In one study, people who said they didn't like country music were made to listen to it and then asked to list three things that were interesting about it. "Their whole perspective changed. It's important to withhold judgment and let your curiosity unfold naturally."

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