Who doesn’t want to be happy? Or want their kids to be happy?
According to Richard Davidson, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it’s simple. Just as we can acquire a skill like learning to play the violin, we can learn to be happy through mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is learning to pay attention to what is going on both around us and within us, and to experience our thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgment. According to Davidson, “The average American adult spends 47% of his waking life not paying attention to what he is doing.” How much are we missing out on if almost half of our days are spent on autopilot? How much happier could we be if we paid attention more?
Many people associate mindfulness and meditation with images of sitting still, long periods of silence, and a clearing of the mind. But mindfulness doesn’t require us to tune out from the world. Mindfulness cultivates the ability to be truly present in our everyday activities. Some adults do learn mindfulness through seated guided meditation, but we can also learn to be mindful by focusing our attention on our breathing or immersing ourselves completely in a simple task like doing the dishes.
There are many positive effects of mindfulness on young children, such as: improved self-regulation, a higher propensity to share, and an increased ability to focus. Children are naturally energetic and active, so Jackson says the approaches used with kids should focus less on stillness, and more on the skills required for paying attention. For example: asking children to listen and be mindful of a specific sound, like the ringing of a bell; or having kids lie down with stones on their stomachs and, as they breathe, asking them to notice the physical sensations of the stones rising and falling.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Learning to play the violin can take years of practice. How long do we need to practice mindfulness to be happier?” Good news! According to Jackson's research, changes can occur in the brain after only a few hours of mindfulness practice. And let’s be clear. This research doesn’t define happiness as always experiencing pleasure or seeing a world peppered with rainbows and unicorns. Jackson speaks of happiness as having a strong sense of wellbeing. It is the ability to experience difficulties and sad circumstances but still maintain an overall feeling that we are going to be okay.
I’ve always felt that we make the choice to be happy or not, and that we can cultivate the necessary skills to handle what life throws at us. Among the many skills I hope to instill in my children, a strong sense of wellbeing is at the top of my list.
If you’re looking for resources, Dr. Kim Foster and parenting educator Andrea Nair both recommend "The How of Happiness" by Sonja Lyubomirsky. You might also be interested in how to start a meditation practice. Yoga is also a great way to cultivate mindfulness. Find out how to find the right yoga class for you.
With my kids now ages eight and five, our family came out of the holidays this year in a completely different way than we did a few short years ago. We actually started the year off relaxed and energized for the coming weeks and months. Before the back-to-school rush, my husband and I were reminiscing about the early years of our children's lives, and memories started to surface of the first Christmas we were new parents. Lizzie was three months old, and despite living six hours away from our closest family members, we had decided to do a whole bunch of traveling to see everyone. How hard could it be, right?
Oh, how much we had to learn….
There are so many parts of that holiday we’d rather forget. (Picture me shouting at my husband about olive oil – enough said.) But the one moment that stands out for me most is the last night of our holiday. I was sitting in the dark in a hotel room trying to rock Lizzie to sleep as tears streamed down my face. The rest of the family festivities were going on two floors below our room, so Tim had gone down to get us some food. I remember feeling so alone. I wasn’t, of course. I had an amazing husband, incredible family, in-laws, and friends. But I felt deeply alone. And sad. I felt stuck in a time-warp, a dark place I was not accustomed to. I wasn’t looking forward to a new year ahead, and this was a foreign feeling to me.
Looking back, there are so many things I’d like to say to myself as that new mom heading into a new year. So many reassurances, loving reminders, and calming words. I wish I could go back eight years and give that younger me a good, long hug (and a big glass of wine.) But because I can’t go back in time, I’m writing this.
In case there are any other new moms out there struggling a little after the holidays, as we head into this year, this is what I would say:
It’s okay to admit, “This is really hard. I’m struggling.”
I recognize now that I had put so much pressure on myself to have it all figured out. I felt that if I admitted I was struggling, it meant I wasn’t happy to be a mom, or that I somehow loved our little one less. Because I didn’t talk about what I was feeling, I don’t think anyone—aside from my super-patient and loving husband—knew how truly difficult it was for me.
Ask for help. And if someone offers to help, take it.
I was not used to asking for help. But I’ve realized that if people don’t know you need help, they don’t know how to help you. I admit, I still struggle with this. Most women are used to taking care of things themselves and are reluctant to impose on others. It can be hard to ask. But do. Ask. We are all human. We all need to lean on others at times. And odds are you would help your friend in a heartbeat, just as she would help you.
This too shall pass.
It may sound trite and you may have heard it before, but I needed to hear it, and I needed to hear specifics. You may feel like you’ll never sleep again, and that you’ll be physically attached to this little being for the rest of your life. I know it feels endless and permanent. But it is not. I promise you. This little being will grow up and she will do things that amaze you. When she’s five years old, she will hold your hair back when you’re puking from the stomach flu (that you got from her) and your husband is away. She will put herself to sleep that night because she knows Mummy is super sick. Or your little guy will, at the age of three, jump up on the bed (after sleeping through the night – yes, that will happen too) and give you a giant hug and say, “Mummy, I just love you so much,” and your heart will melt. These kinds of moments are ahead of you, I promise.
Make peace with a new kind of normal.
Change is hard, and your social life and daily routine likely look far different than before parenthood. The holidays often highlight these differences. You might need to mourn these changes. And that’s okay. Right now, there is a new kind of normal. Allow yourself to go out and experience what you can this year, but don’t be afraid to step back and say, “No, that doesn’t work for us right now.” And don’t worry about missing out on things. There will always be parties to go to, always be activities to get involved in. But let yourself accept what works for your new circumstances.
Make connecting with your partner and getting enough sleep your priority.
Obviously taking care of your new baby is number one on the list, but getting enough sleep and maintaining your relationship are right up there. Sleep whenever you can. And take as many moments with your partner to connect. Those connections will go a long way to help you through the challenging times of being a new parent.
Go Easy on Yourself.
Be compassionate, gentle, and kind to yourself. Let things go. The house doesn’t need to look perfect, you don’t have to cook elaborate meals, you can leave a load or two of laundry unfolded. Give yourself a break in the next few months, and let yourself enjoy the small moments.
Years from now, you’ll look back on these days (as I am now) with a kind of awe that you made it through in one piece. So, give yourself a big hug, take a deep breath, and raise a glass to all the promise that lies ahead.