By Dr. Robert Holden
December 11, 2009
"If I could wish for one thing in my life, it would be that my children grow up happy," says Diane, a mother of two girls, ages 6 and 2. Diane is not alone. A research study conducted in 67 countries interviewed parents from diverse cultures, faiths and income levels about what they most wished for their children. The number one answer, by a long shot, was happiness. Every parent wants his or her child to be happy. If you are a parent, you know how true this is. Unconditional love is only interested in happiness.
In my happiness course, Be Happy, I give my participants a test called The Happiness Genie for Kids. The idea is that a genie appears in your life and offers you a series of wishes you can make on your children's behalf. Each wish is a forced choice. For example, "I wish my child has wealth or happiness." In the last course, 100 percent of parents chose happiness over wealth; 95 percent chose happiness over academic excellence; 95 percent chose happiness over fame; and 90 percent chose happiness over success.
We know what we want for our children, but how do we do it? Well, first it's important to understand that you cannot make your children happy. That said, there is plenty you can do to encourage them to be happy. The distinction between making and encouraging is a vital one. Parents who believe they can make their children happy are prone to making other mistakes like trying too hard to be a good parent, intervening too much, being overcontrolling and believing they always know what's best for their children.
In adult-to-adult relationships, when a person makes it their mission to make their partner or friend happy, they usually end up disappointed, in unhealthy sacrifice and in a role (full-time employment, more like) as a helper. Similarly, if you believe it is your partner/friend's job to make you happy, you will also be disappointed. What's true for adult-to-adult relationships is also true for parent-child relationships. True happiness isn't something you manufacture for others; it exists in their spiritual DNA already. What you can do is offer encouragement to help bring their happiness out.
Practically everything we do as parents is motivated by a desire to see our children be happy. The good news is that there is much you can do to encourage them to discover true happiness for themselves. Every day, in each moment, you can offer essential encouragement through your loving presence, your own example and your steadfast support. As you encourage your children to be happy, you may notice that something else happens, which is that you become happier too.
Debra was 27 years old and six months pregnant when she attended one of my happiness courses. When it was Debra's turn to tell the class why she was taking the course, she said, "I believe the best contribution I can make to my baby's well-being is for me to learn how to be truly happy." I remember seeing a room full of people nodding and smiling at having heard a profound truth.
You are your child's first teacher. They will learn essential lessons from you on how to be happy and how not to be happy. Your primary teaching device is your example. Children learn best of all by example; far better than any wise words you might say. Remind yourself, therefore, as often as possible, "My happiness is a gift to others." When you are happy in your own skin, it helps you to relax, to connect, to be intimate and to give yourself unconditionally. Your happiness makes you fun to be around. It brings out the best in you.
Enjoying Being a Parent
When people ask me what it's like being a parent, I tell them that every day is an epic, there are no days off, it takes everything you've got and it's the most enjoyable thing I've ever done. Parenting is full of challenges, and one of the biggest challenges is to not lose sight of the joy of being a parent. When you make a conscious intention to enjoy being a parent, it helps you to be present, to engage fully, to be truly grateful, to see the humor of it all and to be resilient in the tough times.
"Enjoy your baby. They grow up so fast." I've heard this advice a thousand times at least, and I thought I understood what everyone was telling me, but I had no idea just how fast the time goes. It's true that some days can feel like a week, but all of the days quickly turn into weeks, months and years. Asking yourself a question like, "How can I enjoy being a parent today?" can help you make parenting more creative, rewarding and fun along the way and not just in retrospect. The intention to enjoy yourself has magical powers. In old English, the word "enjoy" means "to bring joy."
An author who is writing a book about happiness interviewed me recently. During our conversation, he asked me, "Generally speaking, how would you teach a child to be happy?" I started to say a few words, but quickly realized I didn't have a proper answer. The next day, having thought it through, I e-mailed him this response: "I wouldn't teach them anything; I'd let them teach me." One of the greatest gifts we can give children is our 100 percent trust that they will work out how to be happy. Happiness is natural to children, and the best thing we can do is not get in the way too much.
Children are great teachers. Being a parent is a chance for us to grow up and become the person we were born to be. Being a parent is also a chance for us to remember to be young again, innocent, playful and full of wonder. Most mornings, I am woken up by Bo, my gorgeous 2 3/4-year-old daughter, who is always fizzing with energy. "Daddy, it's the day!" she says. "Let's have some fun." What a wonderful invitation. Often the sun has yet to come up, but how can I resist? Like my daughter, I too learn by example—and my daughter is a great teacher of happiness to me.
Expressing "I Love You"
One of the most common causes of unhappiness in adults is an unhappy childhood. What makes a childhood unhappy can vary enormously. That said, a common story I hear in my workshops and one-to-one sessions is from adults like Judy, who says: "My parents worked hard to pay the rent, to put food on the table and to clothe us properly. They took care of our physical needs, but I didn't feel met emotionally by them." Judy doesn't mean to sound ungrateful; she is simply acknowledging that young children are hungry for love.
Parenting is about love in action. As a parent, you know deep down that everything you do for your children, you do for love. That you love your children is not in question. That said, a good question to ask yourself is, "How can I love my children today?" Put another way, "How can I express my love so that he/she feels loved?" Remembering to say "I love you" is a great start, and after that you can set about discovering a thousand more ways to say "I love you" without using the words. Always communicate your love, both with and without words. Why? Because love is the most fun you can have with anyone. And because in the final analysis, to love is to be happy.
Robert Holden, PhD, and hisinnovative work on happiness and well-being have been featured on The Oprah Show and Good Morning America and also in two major BBC TV documentaries, The Happiness Formula and How to Be Happy,shown to more than 30 million TV viewers worldwide. He is the author of the best-selling books Happiness NOW!, Shift Happens! and Success Intelligence.His latest book, Be Happy, is published by Hay House. Robert lives in London with his wife and daughter. For more information, visit RobertHolden.org and BeHappy.net.