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.