Ask a parent what they want for their child, and most will rank “happiness” in their top 5. So how do you raise a happy child? It appears the answer, according to science, can be found in gratitude.

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Developing a practice of gratitude

The Link Between Happiness and Success
As parents, teachers, and mentors we try to instill in children a drive for success. We teach children that if they work hard, they will be successful. The message being the harder you work, the more success you’ll achieve. But there may be an unintended consequence to this learning model. As adults, we may inadvertently be teaching our children to not be satisfied with what they have or where they are in life. “You got good grades, now you have to get better grades.” “You went to a good school, now you need to get into a better college.”

Eventually, children internalize this messaging, “I got a good job, now I need to get a better job, a better title, a better salary.” If a child continually equates happiness with being successful, then that child will, in all likelihood, grow into adulthood always raise the bar on success making happiness just out of reach. In other words, without intending to we, as caring adults, may be training children to focus on the end result and not the journey.

Training the Brain to focus on the Positive
The path to happiness may be in the way we think. According to psychologist Shawn Achor, CEO of Good Think Inc., watch his full TED Talk here “By raising positivity in the present, the brain receives what is called a happiness advantage. This advantage gives a person a rise in intelligence, creativity, and energy levels.” The key is training the brain to be mindful in the present moment. Once the brain is in a positive mode both kids and adults are able to work harder, faster, and more intelligently.

Learning to be Grateful
By nature children are born with an instinct for survival. Their primitive brain is focused on getting their needs met. As children grow, parents and role models have a responsibility to teach children that the world doesn’t revolve around them. So how do we teach this important lesson in a way that also supports the long term goal of raising children who are happy and successful? We start by teaching children (and adults) the practice of gratitude.

Studies have shown that learning how to be genuinely grateful for all things contributes significantly to our overall happiness, decreases our stress levels, decreases the amount of time we spend comparing ourselves to others and feeling envious.

5 Steps for Helping Kids and Families Develop the Practice of Gratitude
Step 1: Keep a gratitude journal. Have you child write about one good experience that happened to him or her during the day. This allows your child’s brain to relive the moment and reprocess the experience. If your child is too young to write, have him or her dictate the event as you write it.

Step 2: Share 3 new good things that happen each day. In her video blog, Christine Cater, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Greater Good Science Center suggests making this a family practice. Have each member share their three new positives at the dinner table or incorporate as part of a child’s bedtime routine. By teaching kids to recognize the good things that happen throughout the day, you are helping their brain to develop a behavior pattern of searching for the good first rather than focusing on the bad.

Step 3: Practice random acts of kindness. Provide opportunities for your child to do something nice for someone else on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Doing something nice for someone else teaches children the joy of giving and receiving, as well as help them develop empathy and compassion.

Step 4: Make ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, and ‘You’re welcome’ part of your family culture. When family members practice saying, ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, and ‘You are welcome’ at restaurants, to neighbors, to strangers and to each other, it creates a culture of appreciation. Kids learn empathy, kindness, and the value of making others feel good.

Step 5: Give kids household chores. When kids are given the opportunity and the responsibility of helping around the house, they learn the value of teamwork. Family choirs teach kids the importance of contributing, the significance of participation, and the positive impact we make when we focus on the greater good.

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Founded in 2011, Voices for Children of Broward County is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to raising funds and increasing awareness for the Guardian Ad Litem program of Broward County. To learn more or to make a donation, visit www.voicesbroward.org or call (954) 915-6949.

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