Reframing How We Teach Happiness

How one parent-son team seeks out and defines happiness

Posted Sep 19, 2019

Each spring I teach an undergraduate course on the science of happiness. Over the course of 15 weeks we delve into topics ranging from the biological basis of positive emotions to behavioral strategies for increasing well-being like gratitude, meditation, and social connection.

One of the best parts of teaching this course is when students contact me years after taking the course to let me know how they’ve incorporated these behaviors and mindsets into their own lives. Recently, one of my students, Peter, reached out to let me know about a conversation he had with his mother about the role parents can play when it comes to developing these behaviors in their children. His mother, a developmental psychologist, draws on this background to weigh in.

Peter: Mom, taking this course on the science of happiness got me thinking: How did you and Dad help me find my sources of happiness that allowed me to push through the tougher moments of college?

Dr. Dissinger: Your Dad and I both believe in exercising daily, reading for pleasure, developing friendships and doing community service, activities that I believe promote well-being. At a young age, we signed you up for a variety of sports, attended cultural events, spent time with friends and family and volunteered in Philadelphia.

We never tried to prescribe your happiness, instead, we let you discover what made you happy. For instance, in middle school, you chose to work at a local pre-school for disabled children in Philadelphia after being exposed over previous years to community service.

Peter: I have vivid memories of all of those activities. I got the chance to learn about what things made me happy (reading a novel) and what I was probably not destined to enjoy (intramural soccer). I think this approach was foundational to promoting my version of happiness, which is taking time to do things I love.

Dr. Dissinger: I think some parents try to dictate their children’s lives in such a way that doesn’t allow them to discover what makes them happy, whether forcing a child to play an instrument or a certain sport.

Peter, how did you utilize your upbringing to find sources of happiness in college?

Peter: When I started as a freshman in college, I had a variety of extracurricular activities and academic subjects that brought happiness to my life. In my first three weeks of school, I chose to join our student newspaper, an intramural athletic team and a tutoring program, all of which became critical components of my weekly routines at college. I spent time socializing with new friends on my freshman floor and participated in programming provided by the university. I became as engaged with my community as I could so that I had a number of outlets to ward off any negative emotions that came with the transition into college.

Dr. Dissinger: It’s interesting. As you worked through the course in Positive Psychology your senior year, I noticed that you became open to different ways of finding happiness at college. You rediscovered reading for pleasure, were playing more piano, and generally finding more avenues for self-expression. I even remember coming for graduation and you were halfway into a 10-minute yoga routine! How do you think your attitude on well-being and happiness evolved at college?

Peter: Over time, I found that while friends, clubs, and organizations could all be a great outlet at college for improving my well-being, sometimes they stressed me out, frustrated me, or made me less happy!

In my junior year, I started to prioritize time alone - whether that was going to the gym, meditating in my room, calling family members, watching Netflix, or just taking a nap. Sometimes, those “reset” moments allowed me to get perspective on what was going on in my life or better appreciate how lucky I was at college.

Mom, I’m curious - how would you frame a conversation with a child in high school about their well-being? Mindsets like, “If you’re not happy currently, you’re in trouble” and “happiness comes above all” seem problematic and incomplete to me.

Peter Dissinger, used with permission
Dr. Lisa Dissinger and her son, Peter
Source: Peter Dissinger, used with permission

Dr. Dissinger: It is important for parents to remember the metaphor, “the glass is always half full”. As a parent, you can acknowledge when your adolescent is feeling sad, angry or frustrated. It is also important to point out what is working in their lives and to not overfocus on the negative parts. Being happy should not be defined as never feeling difficult emotions. Help your adolescent understand that life is about trying to find your own personal happiness, as well as learning to cope with negative emotions, which are normal and expected.