New Year’s Resolution: A Happy Life

Happiness. If there were one New Year’s Resolution I were to unequivocally endorse, it would include “happiness” as the operative word. Fifty years of happiness research has led us to this crossroads, and 2009 is the year to embrace the news: happiness is the best predictor of success, longevity, and contentment.

Not only that, happiness is contagious, according to the just-published Framingham Heart Study. So here’s your chance to both shape the resolution for the family and model the behavior for your child. It turns out that happiness is a result of being socially connected; in other words, the entry point of happiness is a sense of connection.

Dr. Ed. Hallowell, in “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness,” explains that happiness is the feeling that your life is going well. BINGO. If there were one overriding word to describe your wish for your children, I think it might be “happiness” then. The big question, of course, is how to help them achieve that state. Hallowell contends, “A connected childhood is the most reliable key to a happy life.”

It begins with unconditional love, that precious gift that is initially bestowed at birth. (Hallowell points out, by the way, that unconditional love doesn’t mean you say ‘yes’ to everything… “Think of ‘no’ as a special kind of hug.’”)

And from there, you actually teach happiness as a skill. The Science for Raising Happy KidsWeb site has loads of ongoing tips for instilling the strong connections that lead children to understanding and responding appropriately to others’ emotions. Positive feelings that can be coached are gratitude, optimism, competence, and altruism to name just a few. The key is to describe, then label those behaviors; you’ll also need to praise those deeds when you see them being applied, but be careful to be specific about that commendation and not fall into the trap of self-esteemia.

“Dominic,” the title dog in the book by William Steig, sets off one day to see the world. The restless, freedom-loving canine at first disconnects from his everyday environment but soon discovers his happiness traits through his encounters with an alligator, a catfish, and even the infamous Doomsday Gang. Dominic emerges from his journey as a considerate, compassionate, generous, and even philosophical dog, declaring, in the end, “What a wonderful world!” Dominic is indeed an enviable hero with a great message: “How perfect,” he assesses after having been cheated, attacked, and challenged. It turns out that “the challenges were his delight. Whatever life offered was, this way or that, a test of one’s skills, one’s faculties; and he enjoyed proving equal to these tests.” Indeed, Dominic turns into the quintessential Renaissance Dog with nerves of steel and a heart of gold.

I was elated to learn that the Framingham study finds that “emotions can spread like a [benevolent] virus.” Happy friends, happy siblings, happy neighbors… and, most of all, happy parents!

Suggest a resolution for 2009 that reflects a focus on happiness in your household and pledge to each other to cultivate connections. Whether it’s reaching out to friend on Facebook or calling Grandma more often or promising to walk a new pet (yes, did I mention that having a pet is a great way to build connections?!)… authentic happiness grows through connections.

The results of the research were striking: “A happy friend who lives within a half-mile makes you 42 percent more likely to be happy yourself.” Imagine what life-long impact a happy parent can have!

Tuck-In Tips

  • What did Dominic set out to find on his journey? Was he successful?
  • What did Dominic learn along his adventure?
  • Describe some similarities between you and Dominic.
  • What does that look like in your (human) world? What is that called? Label behaviors like compassion and trustworthiness that encourage connections.