When people are asked what is their ultimate goal in life, they often reply: “to be happy”. So it’s a no-brainer why parents often say that their main goal is to raise a happy child. But what exactly does it mean to be happy? Is it an emotion, a positive subjective state, or a state of being? The answer is not as easy as it seems. Many parents and scientists alike have tried to get the answer right. One scientist who has spent years studying the notion of happiness is Daniel Gilbert, from Harvard University, and he proposes three definitions to happiness: emotional, moral, and judgmental.

  • Emotional happiness is a feeling related to an experience. For example when your child is excited by a movie, by a trip to an amusement park, or even delighted by a cookie.
  • Moral happiness is more related with virtue and philosophical views. It means that when your child lives a good and proper life full of moral meaning, then he will feel deeply satisfied and content. Dan Gilbert uses the Greek word eudaimonia to exemplify it, and it translates to “good spirit […] human flourishing [and] life well lived”.
  • Judgmental happiness is making a judgment about the source of potentially pleasurable feelings –in the past, present, or future. This type of happiness is usually followed by words such as “about”, “for”, and “that”. For example, your child might be excited about getting a dog or might be happy for going to the park.

Knowing this information clarifies what happiness means, but the question remains: what makes people happy? And is there a formula we can follow?

Dr. John Medina, in his book Brain Rules for Baby, talks about the oldest ongoing experiment since 1937, where researchers from the Harvard Study of Adult Development thoroughly followed 268 Harvard college sophomores (classes of 1939-1944) and a second cohort of 332 disadvantaged (but non-delinquent) inner city kids from Boston neighborhoods. The list of subjects includes 4 would-be senators and even John F. Kennedy! The goal of the study was to identify factors contributing to the “good life” or in other words, happiness. The psychologist heading this research project is George Vaillant.

In an interview for the Atlantic, Vaillant said that, after all the years of research, what constitutes to a ‘good life’ is: “the relationships with other people”. Friendships, he concluded, are a big predictor to living a good life; bigger than other variables such as money. The more intimate the relationship, the better. In his book, Medina states that, in addition to satisfying relationships, other behaviors that predict happiness include: doing altruistic acts, making gratitude lists, cultivate attitude of gratitude, sharing new experiences with loved ones, and being able to forgive.

According to Medina, it turns out that money doesn’t play a big role in happiness. “People who make more than $5 million a year are not noticeably happier than those who make $100,000 a year, The Journal of Happiness Studies found. Money increases happiness only when it lifts people out of poverty to about the mid-five figures. Past $50,000 per year in income, wealth and happiness part ways”. These findings will hopefully alleviate parents’ concerns about forcing their children into certain careers paths, in hopes for them to live the “good life” in the future. Parents can just try to guide them to choose a career they love, but where they can at least make mid-five figures. They don’t have to be millionaires to be thrilled and happy about life. After their basic needs are met, they just need a good safety blanket -that is, being surrounded with good friends and family!

One thing is for certain though, if you want your child to be happy, you should try to promote your baby’s social skills in order to learn to socialize effectively. This means, teaching him how to make friends by being a good friend, and then teaching him how to keep them. As you might suspect, many ingredients go into creating socially smart children -too many to count! However, there are two factors that have the strongest backing in scientific literature and are the most predictive for social competency: emotional regulation and empathy. To promote this in your child, teach him to be thoughtful, kind, sensitive, cooperative, and forgiving. That way, he will be more likely to have lasting friendships and, therefore, a better shot at happiness.

If you want to work on your baby’s social skills, here is an activity that can help you get started!

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