Posted by
Katia Hetter
Happy Family!

Grumpy after the kids fail to finish their homework again? Unhappy by your spouse constantly coming home from work late? Maybe you think your happiness is out of your hands -- that your spouse or your kids or even your genetics decide your mood and you don't have much say.

Think again. It turns out that living those overused phrases like "Count your blessings" and "Stop comparing yourself to others" can actually make you happier, and psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, who wrote The How of Happiness, has the research to prove it.

Genuinely happy people don't just sit around being happy. "They're active," says Dr. Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. "They pursue goals, they're good at relationships and they engage in positive thinking.

She estimates that about 50% of people's happiness is determined by their genes, and about 10% can be attributed to differences in life circumstances or situations, although those estimates can vary by person. That leaves about 40% of people's happiness within their control.

That's right -- how happy you feel is partially up to you. And if you teach yourself and your children the tools to be happy, your whole family ultimately lead happier lives--even if faced with difficult times. Even if you're unhappy right now, you can learn some of the habits of a happy person and experience joy. Different methods work for different people, says Lyubomirsky, so try them out and see which ones work for you. Here are some ways to get started (which I adapted from her recommendations for adults):

Count your blessings.  Express gratitude for what you have, privately or by thanking other people. To put this idea into action, add a "grateful list" to your younger children's nighttime routine. As you tuck them into bed, talk together about the good things that happened that day (you can literally count them). And don't be surprised if it includes your son's favorite chips in his lunch or an especially good kickball game at recess. Blessings can also be part of the conversation at the dinner table, where young children and teens alike absorb what you say, even if they're pretending not to.

Practice acts of kindness. It's never too early to show your children that you value kindness. You can practice simple daily acts of kindness such as saying "please" and "thank you" around your children and with your children and asking them to do be courteous with you and other people. As part of a more concerted effort, toddlers can help carry food or clothing donations to a food bank or Goodwill store. Slightly older kids can host bake sales to help with a crisis (like the earthquake in Haiti) or as a part of a regular effort to raise awareness of a disease that may affect your family or friends. Some children might enjoy donating directly and others might like to do it anonymously. If your church or synagogue has a charity program, consider getting involved with your kids.

Cultivate optimism. Practice looking at the bright side of every situation with your children. Let's say your son might be worried he's going to get a low score on a spelling test. It's okay that he expresses his fears. You can help him come up with a solution -- offer to help him study for the test and build his confidence in his abilities. Your daughter's soccer team might worry about losing the next game against the best team in the league, but you can encourage her to "win" by increasing her skills by working on scoring her next goal or practicing a new kick.

Replay and savor life’s joys.
Just notice whenever you have a joyous moment -- even at the drive thru or when your child learns a new word. Pay attention and express your happiness with life’s momentary pleasures and wonders as they happen. Be in the moment with your children when you can, and tell them when you're happy with anything they've done. Ask your children what's good about today and mention it when you see them particularly happy about something.

Do activities that truly engage. Increase the number of experiences at home and work in which you and your children “lose” yourselves, and make sure they're challenging and absorbing.You might love to cook but not have the time during the week, so focus on making Sunday dinner special or by making it a team effort. Make sure your children's activities really capture them, and don't give up if your first few tries (ultimate Frisbee anyone?) don't work.

The happiness quiz! How happy are you? If you want to figure out how happy you already are and what you can do to become happier, check out Dr. Lyubomirsky's website and try her online quizzes!