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Teaching Happiness

When asked what we want most in life, the majority of us will reply that we want to be happy. This desire drives much of our decision making and is the motivation behind almost everything we do. Times of elation, achievement, success, and victory are often described as “the happiest” moments of our lives. So how can we be happy? And, just as important, how can we “teach” happiness to our children?

Chicken and Egg

I believe the first step is to change the formula we’ve all been taught about happiness. In his book, “The Happiness Advantage,” Shawn Achor describes the traditional thinking this way:

“If you work hard, you’ll become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy.”

He goes on to explain that the problem with this equation is that it’s completely backward. Over more than twenty years now, the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience have shown that happiness is one of the precursors to success, not just a result of it. Again, from his book:

“…happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement. …Waiting to be happy limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upwards.”

Even though the Declaration of Independence famously lists “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our inalienable rights, it turns out that happiness is more a decision and manner of living than a pursuit or achievement. This paradigm shift can make a tremendous difference, and increase our likelihood of being truly happy and successful, in that order.

Certainly, there are times when emotional and psychological problems complicate the picture significantly and may require professional help. At Canyon View Pediatrics, we can help to determine if your child falls into this category. If you, as a parent, are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other related conditions, our family medicine colleagues can be of assistance. But even in these circumstances, the concepts and practices of positive psychology are an essential part of being a happy person.

So how is this to be done? And how is it then to be taught? Well, Mr. Achor’s entire book proposes answers to those questions. It is a fairly fast and entertaining read, so I highly recommend it. But I will summarize just two of the important concepts, specifically regarding how we can help our children live in greater happiness.

Growth Mindset

In her book, “Mindset,” psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., describes the concepts of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets, backed by years of research through dozens of studies. To have a full appreciation for this important topic, I recommend her whole book, which is also a fast and entertaining read. I will briefly summarize the main ideas and how they pertain to our children.

The fixed mindset basically says that things (and people) are how they are and can’t change. Phrases which exemplify the fixed mindset are the following:

That’s just how I am.

I’m not good enough.

I’m a failure.

Why even try?

I can never get it right.

Bad things always happen to me.

On the other hand, the growth mindset is exemplified by phrases like:

I’ll get it next time.

I know I can do better.

I failed that test, but I’m not a failure.

I’ve got this.

Good things are coming.

I can do anything.

This is more than just blind optimism. It’s a state of mind and being, with far-reaching implications for the path of our lives. Those who consistently stay on the growth side of the mindset spectrum achieve significantly more success than those who tend towards fixed mindset thinking. 

My challenge to all of us as parents is to cultivate the growth mindset in ourselves and help our children to do the same. The most practical and measurable way of doing this is to carefully consider the words we use, especially when we are around our children, ensuring that they convey the positivity of the growth mindset. If we catch ourselves expressing fixed mindset ideas, we can consciously turn those phrases around to model the growth mindset attitude. 

This must begin with paying closer attention to our own self-talk, and the stories we tell ourselves. If our internal dialogue is overly negative and critical, this will likely spill over into our treatment of others, especially our children. It has been said that we should treat ourselves like someone we care about. If we talk to ourselves in a way that would be inappropriate for our friends and loved ones, then the change should start here.

Circle of Control

This concept is illustrated by the story of Zorro. You may recall that when Alejandro (later Zorro) first encountered the old sword master Don Diego, the younger man was broken by years of drinking and bad decisions. He felt completely helpless, having (in his view) no control over his own life. Don Diego had to help Alejandro become the director of his own life, and develop real self-control for the first time.

Don Diego drew a circle in the dirt around Alejandro and told him that he must become the master of only that small space. He said, “This circle will be your world. Your whole life. Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it.” Once Alejandro mastered control of the circle, he was gradually given other and greater challenges. As he gained greater abilities and discipline, he also regained control of his life, becoming the master of his world. This helped him to overcome the despair that results from falling prey to the victim mentality and restored the internal locus of control necessary for growth and success. Once again, from Achor’s book: 

“Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance.” 

My second challenge to all of us as parents is to teach our children how to be the directors of their own lives. The most powerful way to do this is through example. Do our words and actions demonstrate discipline and control, or are they more reflective of the victim mentality? If there are areas of our lives that we can’t seem to master, we may need to start with a small circle, and gradually increase it. This is likely to be the case for our children as well.

An example in the Achor book describes a man whose desk at work was chronically messy, to the point that his productivity nearly ground to a halt. He was given the task of clearing one small corner of his desk, which he did fairly quickly. Rather than progressing to the rest of the desk, he was then charged with defending that small area for the next day, keeping it organized and clean. Gradually he tackled other small sections of the desk until he once again had control over his domain (or at least his desk). 

We can employ the same techniques with our children, from toddlers to teen. Consider how this concept can apply to our young ones in cleaning their rooms, completing their homework, getting out of bed on time, yelling at siblings or parents, common chores, reading a book, and dozens of other everyday situations. Gradually they can experience the increased self-esteem that comes with being masters of their own circles of control.

Your Brain on Positive

Our effectiveness in spreading the “happiness advantage,” and teaching it to our children, will depend entirely on our ability to make the necessary changes in ourselves first. Positivity breeds positivity. The ideas of the growth mindset and circle of control, among other concepts of positive psychology, can transform our lives and our family experiences. When we choose happiness as our way of life, greater success will necessarily follow. And this will be true for our children as well.

Your Family and the Core Values of the United States Air Force

As a father of 10 children ranging in age from 9 to 27 years of age, I have often pondered how to best help my children as they have grown and progressed through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and now young adulthood. Additionally, my wife Bonnie and I have had frequent conversations during our 29 years of marriage about how to nurture and provide for our children. These discussions have been important to us as we have strived to care for our family and to work with our children to help them accomplish their goals and solve their challenges.

As mothers and fathers, we naturally want what is best for our children so that they will mature into capable, responsible and resilient adults who have integrity, who are motivated to do their best and who have desires to serve others and make this world a better place. We hope that they will strive to develop the character traits that will be of most benefit to them throughout their lives.

During these times of reflection regarding my role as a father, my thoughts return to the training I received during my service as an officer and pediatrician in the United States Air Force. Towards the end of my career, I served as a commander for a squadron of about 110 dedicated medics, nurses, physicians, and ancillary medical staff. My responsibilities included assisting young men and young women, who had just graduated from basic training, to incorporate the mission and values of new Airmen in our United States Air Force. I came to appreciate those individuals who wanted to make a positive difference and who were dedicated to helping our squadron fulfill its part in the overall Air Force mission.

As such, the Air Force’s mission and core values were emphasized regularly during training exercises and “commander’s calls”. From Air Force Instructions (AFI) chapter 1: The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight, and win in air, space and cyberspace. In order to achieve this critical mission for our country, the Air Force emphasizes three core values: Integrity First, Service before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.

Air Force Instructions (AFI) chapter 1 states: “Integrity is a character trait. It is the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking. It is the “moral compass” – the inner voice, the voice of self-control; the basis for the trust that is essential in today’s military. Service before Self tells us that professional duties take precedence over personal desires. Excellence in All We Do directs us to develop a sustained passion for the continuous improvement and innovation that will propel the Air Force into a long-term, upward vector of accomplishment and performance. Our core values define our standards of conduct.

Integrity is also the basis for the trust that is essential for our families. I am grateful that my parents strived to set an example of integrity in our home and took the time to lovingly correct us when we needed it. When I worked for my mom and dad in their bicycle shop during my teenage years, there were times when meeting the expenses of the business was difficult. As employees, we would write our time down in a book that was used to process our payments. My parents taught us that we needed to be accurate and honest with our records so that the business could meet its obligations. Watching my parents work hard and sacrifice for our family helped me realize that integrity is very important and that I needed to work hard in order for the bicycle shop and our family to succeed. Bonnie and I have strived to follow their example by encouraging our children to consistently and persistently do what is right, even when no one is looking. Parents can help foster the value of integrity in their children with things like expecting them to be honest during an exam or insisting that they pay others back when they borrow money.

As for the value of Service before Self, I see parents on a daily basis place the needs of their children ahead of their own. Mothers and fathers willingly sacrifice sleep, energy, time and resources to serve their children. I stand in awe of mothers who sacrifice all they have to bring a newborn infant into this world and then constantly give of themselves to nurture their newborn. As our children grow, we need to help them give back to their family by regularly completing their chores, serving their siblings, and fulfilling additional projects or assignments in the home. This helps them learn to be accountable and to make good use of their time. As important as sports, dance, music, and other extracurricular activities may be, if children only live for themselves, they may not learn the important value of Service before Self. As a father, I have observed that teaching this value to our children while they are young sets the pattern later for their adolescent years when it is naturally easy for them to be more self-centered.

Children who learn to be responsible and accountable are laying the foundation in their lives to live the value of Excellence in All We Do. As children grow, parents can refrain from doing for their children what they can do for themselves. This can help them feel capable and responsible and also builds confidence and self-reliance. Children who are given the opportunity to contribute to the work in a home and family increase their sense of belonging. They feel as though they are needed, and that the work they do is part of making the home a more orderly place. When children complete their age appropriate chores and assignments, this gives them a sense of purpose, the knowledge that they are needed, and the confidence that what they have to contribute is important. Also, expecting and teaching our children to do their best at home, school, and other extracurricular activities, helps them incorporate the value of Excellence in All We Do in their daily lives.

As Americans, we fully expect our Air Force to accomplish its vital mission and live its core values. Likewise, we can strive to live the values of Integrity First, Service before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. If we help our children incorporate these same values in their lives, our families will be strengthened.

Real Conversation – There’s No App For That

Think about the last time you had a really good talk with someone. Maybe it was over lunch, or in the car, or over the phone. Or maybe, ideally, the conversation took place in a living room or other comfortable space, without time pressures or interruptions. If so, you made eye contact, observed facial expressions and body language, and shared personal moments together. This typically creates increased feelings of closeness and strengthens the bonds of friendship or family relationships. Afterward, you likely felt that you knew the other person better and that he or she knew you better in return. Does this kind of conversation happen often? Ever?

Now think of your most recent text or email thread. These, too, are often referred to as conversations. But do they serve the same purposes? Are they of equal value? It doesn’t take much thought to realize that the differences are striking and important. These digital communications inherently lack the level of interpersonal connection and intimacy that the face to face (and, to a lesser extent, phone) conversations provide. Here are several reasons:

  • We often must guess about the intended tone and emotion of texts and emails. Using emojis and other symbols help in this regard, but they can only go so far.
  • Text and email often embolden people to “say” things they would never verbalize face to face. Unfortunately, this is almost always in a negative sense.
  • There’s no rhythm to electronic communications, and sometimes longer or shorter pauses between responses are misinterpreted.
  • It’s difficult to know someone’s true response to our digital communications, because we can’t see facial expressions or body language, and responses can be tempered and thought out before being sent.
  • The overall tone of text messages and emails is cold and unemotional. A smiling emoji doesn’t have the same effect as a smiling human face.
  • The inability to make eye contact when communicating electronically means that it can never be as personal and meaningful as face to face conversation

There are many other items that could be on this list. Some argue that the muted emotions of digital communication can be a positive thing, leading to fewer arguments, or less contentious relationships. Another argument is that the additional time afforded to craft responses and make them “perfect” is a net positive as well.

However, being human is messy, and so are relationships. It’s often in the real-time, back and forth of in-person conversations that closeness is created, despite the stress – or maybe even because of it. If our communications are too clean and sterile, does the human part of the connection we should feel with each other really stand a chance?

The Empathy Crisis

At this point, you may be wondering why I am writing about this particular topic in a pediatric blog post. Rightfully so. But this actually has a lot to do with our children, from the youngest newborns to the current generation of teenagers. Young people today are part of the most “connected” generation there has ever been. But it is clear they are often failing to make the most important connections for long term happiness – emotional connections with each other and those around them. There is mounting evidence that one of the biggest casualties of the digital age is the ability of children to learn and feel empathy. This could have catastrophic consequences in the years and decades to come. But awareness and prevention are keys to averting the potential crisis.

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”¹ The ability to be empathic is an essential component of good mental and emotional health. Indeed, it is one of the key elements of all healthy societies, communities, and families. The lack of empathy results in all kinds of social ills.

Empathy is learned… and taught. Piaget and Freud once proposed that empathy can only be learned after a certain age. For Piaget, that age was 7. He claimed that children are inherently self-centered from 0-7 and unable to understand another’s point of view or feel the emotions of another. This is now known to be false, and even the youngest children can learn and show empathy. Children under 2 years of age can be observed to feel what another is feeling. Toddlers are sensitive to the feelings of their friends and will often mimic their emotions, a necessary precursor to empathy. But empathy needs to be repeatedly modeled and encouraged in toddlers before it becomes a part of their behavior. Three-year-olds can make the connection between emotions and desires, and they can respond to a friend’s distress with simple soothing gestures. Five and six-year-olds are learning how to read others’ feelings through their actions, gestures, and facial expressions — an essential part of empathy and social skill.²

Empathy Across Age Groups

From birth to about the age of 2, eye contact, facial expressions, physical contact, shared noises, soothing, and many other interactions are the mainstays of healthy nurturing. So what happens when new parents, instead of engaging with their infant for hours on end, as should be the case, devote their attention to a screen, small or large? Then, what happens when they put a small screen in the hands of their one-year-old and teach her how to swipe, open apps, and become fully engaged with such an entertaining device? Now all eyes are on screens, rather than on each other. If this pattern is repeated often enough, then a child may spend more time interacting with the virtual world than with their real-world teachers and mentors. How can she be expected to learn empathy, and myriad other essential interpersonal skills, in this world of limited face to face interaction?

In her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” author Sherry Turkle writes the following:

The work of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel has taught us that children need eye contact to develop parts of the brain that are involved with attachment. Without eye contact, there is a persistent sense of disconnection and problems with empathy. Siegel sums up what a moment of eye contact accomplishes: “Repeated tens of thousands of times in a child’s life, these small moments of mutual rapport [serve to] transmit the best part of our humanity – our capacity for love – from one generation to the next.”³

Yet study after study shows that we spend less and less time in personal interactions, physically making eye contact with each other and interacting. This is truer the younger the age of those studied. If parents are eating dinner with their children, that’s a wonderful opportunity to connect and bond. However, if they’re eating dinner with their children and looking at their phones the whole time, the opportunity is wasted, and they may as well be eating at different times and in different places.

Now picture a grade-schooler. At this stage, he craves the attention and affection of his parents and those around him. He requires frequent mentoring, modeling, and physical play. At school, he is learning the basics of acceptable behavior in various social settings and can see his peers’ reactions to him, both positive and negative. But if most of his interactions are digital, then he doesn’t get this feedback. Or worse, in some online and virtual interactions, what would normally be negative and harmful behavior may produce positive feedback and reinforcement (think violent video games, or viral videos of people treating each other badly, etc.).

Again, no viewing experience can replace all of the benefits of personal interaction, especially with parents. So if one of the most often modeled parental behaviors is looking at a phone screen, or a computer screen, or a television screen, what do we expect our grade-schoolers to learn? What do we expect them to view as most important to their parents? And what do we expect to be the result of minimal face to face interaction between parents and children?

When Teens Lack Empathy

Fast forward a few years, and an early teen is surprised to get in trouble over a post on social media. She doesn’t understand why her friend was hurt by it. After all, she was “just having fun” and “it’s not real.” When asked to put herself in her friend’s position, so she can comprehend how her friend felt, it’s as if she doesn’t understand the concept. The idea of apologizing to her friend face to face is out of the question. She does manage to admit that she never would have said the words in her post directly to someone in person but also admits that she is unlikely to change her online behavior.

It turns out that this teen’s limited personal interactions are with a small group of people who are very similar to her. The vast majority of her communications are on social media, generated on her phone, and the only feedback she receives is through likes, retweets, repostings, and comments. She prefers to communicate, even with her friends, by digital means rather than in person. And while she says that she loves to hang out with her friends, she is typically on her phone at those times, while her friends are on theirs. This has been referred to as being “alone together.” She spends far more time on screens than she does in actual conversations with the people around her. Statistics show that this is the case for the vast majority of teens today. The fact that most teens are more connected to electronics than to each other and their families should be unsettling to all of us.

The Cost of Tech Success

Among today’s parents of children and teens, there is a growing feeling that we were blindsided by the onslaught of digital devices over the past several years. With all of the amazing things these devices can do and their many applications, we didn’t think twice about sharing these miracles with our children. Once all of these devices came within reach of the average consumer, and we could buy phones and tablets and computers and gaming devices for ourselves and our children, we never stopped to ask ourselves if we should.

These devices and apps and games were created to be used. Success in the tech world is measured by the amount of time people spend using a product. Make no mistake about it, addiction is the goal. An addicted consumer represents a constant revenue stream. It’s very telling that many of the leaders of the biggest tech companies are notorious for not allowing their own children to use tech. Waldorf School, one of the most reputable schools in Silicon Valley, forbids the use of electronics anywhere on campus. They even discourage screens at home. Tech giants know exactly how dangerous and harmful their own creations can be, and they try to protect their children from it. And they start from the time they’re born. It’s bad enough if teens are dependent on their phones and devices, but how much worse is it when that dependency begins before preschool?

What Can Be Done?

Delay the age at which children are exposed to these devices. This will not be easy, and for some, it is obviously too late. But the American Academy of Pediatrics has long warned about the use of screens too early in life, and the detrimental effects it can have on normal social and intellectual development.4 So while it may be cute that your 2 years old knows how to work your smartphone, it’s difficult to measure the harm that may be done to a whole generation of tech savvy but socially stunted children.

Encourage children to play together without electronics. I believe that what happens on the playground during recess is just as important for long term success as what happens in the classroom. When children play together, without devices, they don’t just play. They talk, they joke, they laugh, they argue, they may even fight on occasion. They learn how to interact with each other, what’s appropriate and what is not. They learn how to be a friend, to think outside of themselves, and how to empathize. If this is only happening at recess, however, and not in the hours after school and on weekends, then children are unlikely to sufficiently learn these invaluable human lessons.

The teenager equivalent to this is hanging out without using electronics. I’m not sure this is even done anymore. What it will take is for some teens to no longer tolerate phone and device use when they are hanging out together. The current state of being “alone together” with everyone looking down at a screen can be replaced by conversation, actually getting to know each other and deepening friendships. It will take a brave few to do this, and then it may spread. We can encourage our teens to be among the trendsetters.

Many are now recommending that no one under the age of 16 should have a smartphone. And those over 16, who have a smartphone, should be closely supervised, with parents checking on their phone and social media accounts regularly. These ideas are often met with derision from teens and parents alike and dismissed as being out of touch with the realities of today. But today’s reality is not a great one. Levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, feelings of isolation, bullying, and suicidal ideation have all increased in recent years. There is a direct correlation between these problems and the amount of time spent on electronics, particularly smartphones.5 Junior high students appear to be particularly vulnerable to these effects. For those who will not swap out their teen’s smartphone for a flip phone, then you may employ parental controls either on the phone itself or through your wireless carrier. This can be an important step in helping your teen decrease time spent (wasted) on the phone, opening up more of an opportunity for social interaction (actual talking).

Create tech free places or times. While at the dinner table, when the family is at home together, when friends are physically with each other, and while in the car – these are some of the times and places for disconnecting from devices and connecting with people. It will likely take some effort and persistence to change these habits, but creating more opportunities for conversation is a goal worth pursuing.

We must look at ourselves and make the changes we want to see our children make. Think back to the beginning of this article. I asked you to recall a conversation in which you truly connected with someone, and you were both better for it. When was the last time you had a moment like that with your teenagers? For those with younger children, when did you last have floor time with them, play a game together, look in each other’s eyes and really connect? If these experiences are not the norm, then there is work to be done.

Look Up From Your Phone, Shut Down The Display

In his 2014 video, Gary Turk poignantly made the case for consciously limiting our use of electronics in order to connect more often with those around us. Here is the link:

Some of my favorite lines from this video are the following:

“So look up from your phone, shut down the display.

Take in your surroundings, make the most of today.

Just one real connection is all it can take

To show you the difference that being there can make.”

We Simply Must Make Time for Conversation Again

This is true in the workplace, in public spaces, on buses and trains, and most importantly, in our homes. If you don’t feel you’re very good at it, then practice. Look people in the eye, smile, and speak. Express a generous thought. Share an experience. Tell a joke that falls flat, and then laugh because it wasn’t funny. Take time to listen, to learn, to empathize, to care. Create the bonds that can hold a friendship, a family, a company, a community together. This is done through the most human of all the media we have – conversation. We owe it to ourselves to ask the hard questions and make the hard changes. And we owe it to our children.


¹ (online dictionary)

² Ages & Stages: Empathy, by Carla Poole, Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., Ellen Booth Church

³ Reclaiming Conversation – The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle

4 Children and Media Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics

5Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time

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