No…it is not an oxymoron to say a “happy, satisfied teen.” Teens often get the bad rap of being moody, full of angst, and complaining about everything. But it’s more myth than fact. Sure, they have times of moodiness (as do most adults). They may even complain…but I know many adults who do the same (including me). Still, teens do experience multiple changes in their physical life, social life, and psychological life that can create a sense of unhappiness and a dissatisfaction with life. But I have good news. A study led by an educational psychology professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign discovered a great way to help teens become happier and more satisfied with life.
This study followed 200 teens between 14- and 19-years-old for 70 days. These teens took part in a 10-week learning challenge sponsored by GripTape, a non-profit organization working to “instill a sense of agency in young people.” Each day, the participants rated how “purposeful they felt, how satisfied they were with their life, and the levels of positive and negative emotions they experienced.” The results revealed that feeling “more purposeful than usual on any single day was a unique predictor” of the participants’ emotional well-being. In other words, when teens felt a sense of purpose, they felt better about themselves. They experienced a higher level of happiness and greater satisfaction with life. So, how can you increase your teens’ sense of purpose and, as a result, increase their happiness and life satisfaction? I’m glad you asked.
Model a life of purpose. Our teens will emulate the life we model, so life a life of purpose. Think about the activities and interactions that give your life purpose. Your work or community involvement provides you with a sense of purpose. Volunteer work through your church or school provides you with a sense of purpose. Or your sense of purpose may derive from acts of kindness and service to neighbors and family members. Whatever it is, let your light shine so your teen can see it. Live your purpose with joy that your teen can witness.
Value kindness. Kindness represents a valuable purpose in today’s world. We need people who act in kindness toward neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers. Kindness, from holding the door open to a simple “thank you,” has a powerful impact on our world and our individual lives. Model this simple action of purpose and encourage your teen to practice it as well.
Allow exploration. Teens find their purpose by exploring the world around them. Support them in exploring a variety of interests. Encourage them to explore through reading. If the opportunities arise, let them travel to other places to meet other people and witness other lifestyles. Exploration will help your teen gain a deeper understanding of themselves and find their purpose.
Provide volunteer opportunities. Volunteer opportunities are a wonderful way to explore and seek purpose. You can volunteer as a whole family or individually with your teen in a variety of ways. Depending on your teens’ interests, you might volunteer at a food bank, in a nursing home, in your church worship band, through habitat for humanity…or simply in your neighborhood by helping others whenever a need arises.
Allow downtime as an opportunity for reflection. Our teens often experience a constant rush of activities. They run from school to sports to clubs to homework to church activities to the next item on the agenda with very little downtime. When they finally get the chance to sit down and rest, they delve into the world of technology. Still, no reflection. Sometimes our teens need a period of simple boredom, of looking for something positive to grab their attention. This downtime allows them the opportunity to seek out their passions and find their purpose.
You will have a happier, more satisfied teen if you can help them find a sense of purpose. Of course, your teens’ sense of purpose will change and grow as they mature. But having a sense of purpose will increase their happiness and general satisfaction with life. “A happy, satisfied teen” is not an oxymoron—it’s a teen with a sense of purpose, a goal worth striving for.
Imagine the happiness of receiving a bonus equal to one week’s salary. You can give your family that same amount of happiness just by doing this one thing together. A study involving 70,000 participants over a 2-year period confirmed that volunteering increases happiness. Specifically, people who volunteer are more satisfied with their lives. They also rated their overall health as better. And the more time a person spent volunteering, the greater their life satisfaction and perception of health.
This study also showed that anyone who starts to volunteer became happier over time. This held true whether the volunteers were happy or not when they began volunteering. In fact, volunteers experienced about the same increase in happiness that a person feels when receiving an extra week’s pay!
I’d love to let my family experience that kind of increase in happiness. Wouldn’t you? Good news. You can make it happen. Simply gather the family. Talk about places where your family can volunteer. Choose one and start volunteering. Give it away for family fun. Then, get ready for an increase in happiness that your whole family will enjoy.
What can we learn about compassion from geometry and infants? Researchers at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev answered that question by showing two videos to a group of 6-month-old infants. In the first video, a square figure with eyes climbed a hill to meet a round figure with eyes. They go down the hill together, their eyes filled with happiness and positive feelings. In the second video, the round figure hits and bullies the square figure until it goes down the hill alone, showing distress by crying and falling over. After seeing these two videos, the infant was given the opportunity to choose one of the figures, they chose the “bullied” square figure over 80% of the time. This suggests they felt an “empathic preference,” compassion, for the bullied figure.
Ironically, in a second experiment, the square figure met the round figure on the top of the hill and went down the hill in distress even though the round figure did NOT bully or treat the square unkindly. The square went down the hill in distress for no apparent reason in this experiment. In this case, the infants showed no preference for the square figure or the round figure. In other words, their “empathic preference” was based on context. They had compassion for the bullied figure when distress by some action, but not for the figure that exhibited distress for no apparent reason.
If 6-month-old infants showed over
an 80% preference (compassion) for the bullied victim, why does it seem we
don’t see compassion for the victim at least 80% of the time in the adult
world? And how can we, as parents, nurture that compassion in our children? I’m
not sure…the research didn’t address that question. But…perhaps we can make an
educated guess about a couple possible reasons.
Maybe the media only reports on that smaller percentage of non-compassionate acts. Perhaps compassion is exhibited over 80% of the time, but compassion doesn’t make for good ratings. So, we witness the less than 20% of non-compassionate acts occurring in the world in the headlines, the frontpage stories, and the lead stories. If this is the case, we, as parents need to help our children see the compassion in the world. We need to intentionally point out the helpers in the current world and throughout history.
Perhaps parents don’t model and encourage compassion. Could it be that many parents promote a “dog eat dog” world, a world of limited resources for which we must compete? Perhaps our actions suggest that “only a few can get the prize” and nothing short of “the prize” is worth having. At best, we promote ignoring the other guy or, worse, pushing the other guy out of the way to get the limited resource or cherished prize. If this is true, we need to adjust our view of the world. We need to realize that “the prize” is not necessarily the trophy for coming out as “number one” but the glory of playing an honorable game, which at times may result in a prize. We need to nurture the understanding that resources are plentiful when we use them wisely, share them generously, and encourage one another genuinely.
Let me share a few practical actions
we can take to nurture compassion in our children.
Model compassion. Our children’s compassion begins at home. They learn how to interact with the world by watching us interact with the world. Let them see you act in compassion toward others. Let them see kindness in you.
“Look for the helpers” in the present world and in history. Consider not just the atrocity of slavery, but the compassion of those who supported the underground railroad. Don’t just speak of the horror of the holocaust, praise the Righteous Among the Nations as well. Rather than simply talk about various injustices in the world, “look for the helpers” and support them in word and deed. Look for acts of kindness or compassion in the world and point them out to your children.
Volunteer. One way to support the “helpers” is to become one yourself. Look for opportunities to volunteer as a family. Consider ways you can reach out in kindness to those around you and involve your children in the act. They will learn the joys of compassion and it will become a lifelong style of interaction.
It seems paradoxical, even counterintuitive but it’s true; happiness is fleeting when we pursue it. The more we try to make ourselves happy, the more it eludes us. Paradoxically, we find ourselves happy when we forget about ourselves and reach out to help another. In other words, to truly experience happiness a person has to plant seeds of service in the soil of kindness and fertilize it with generosity. Research even has a name for the good feelings that come from helping others. They call it a “helper’s high.” Those who do things for other people experience the euphoria of the “helper’s high” due to a release of endorphins. Helping others also increases a person’s sense of self-worth, which enhances happiness as well. So, to grow a happy family, sow seeds of kindness and plant starter plants of helpfulness, fertilize with generosity, and water it daily with polite hospitality. Still confused about how to grow happiness in your family by giving to others? Try these four ideas to get started.
Model kindness within your family. Give your spouse and children words of kindness and encouragement. Words like “Thank you,” “Please,” “Can I help?” and “You look nice” will model kindness. Don’t stop with words alone; walk the talk. Practice some “mighty little deeds of kindness,” like holding doors open for one another, letting someone else manage the remote…you get the idea. This is the first step in producing a happy family filled with kindness. Researchers at the University of California in San Diego and Harvard observed that one act of kindness leads others to engage in kindness. Ultimately, this “tripled the value” of the first kind act as it spread from person to person. When you share kindness in your family, your spouse and children will follow your example. Your kindness and generosity will “cascade through your social network [family] to affect” the lives of everyone in your family and more! ( read more in Why This Beautiful Human Behaviour is Highly Infectious)
Model kindness to those outside your family. You could start by trying an experiment researchers used in a study reported in How To Be Happy By Giving to Others: perform five random acts of kindness one day a week for six weeks. Have each family member assess their level of happiness at the start of this experiment. During the experiment, let each person record their acts of kindness just so you can keep track of all five each week. At the end of the experiment, assess your level of happiness again. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Volunteer as a family. Take the time as a family to volunteer with your church, a community activity, or an organization designed to help others (like Habitat for Humanity, a local animal shelter, or your local church).
When you gather as a family for dinner or in the car to travel to an activity, ask your spouse and kids about any acts of kindness they carried out. As each person talks about their act of kindness, explore specifics about the reaction of the recipient of their kind act. Were they surprised? Did they smile? How did they respond? Did they say thank you? Breaking the larger goal of showing kindness into a concrete observable goal of making someone smile will increase the overall happiness of the giver (see How to be Happy by Giving to Others for more).
Follow these four tips and you will notice acts of kindness, of giving to others, increase; and, as they increase, family happiness will increase as well!
This family fun night is such a positive experience you might choose to make it a way of life in your family. I know several families who enjoyed this activity so much they decided to make it a regular part of their lives. And why not? It gave them a sense of accomplishment. It even enhanced each family member’s self-confidence and boosted their happiness. This family fun night also had a positive effect on everyone’s physical and emotional health. Over time, it improved the children’s social skills. Oh, and one more thing: it gave the whole family a greater sense of purpose and identity. Sound too good to be true? Well, you will have to try it to find out! Oh wait. I haven’t told you what this family fun night is… or how to have it. Sorry about that. Let me briefly explain this family fun night.
You can experience all these benefits and more by volunteering together as a family. Volunteering as a family creates a wonderful night of family joy. It’s true. You can volunteer to work with your church, your community, or another organization. You will have fun and experience all the benefits above. Whether you volunteer through an organization like Habitat for Humanity, your local humane society, a local nursing home, or your church you will finish your time of volunteering feeling good. Your family will grow more intimate, empathetic, and appreciative as you work together to help other people. Once again, I have to offer a word of caution. When you give it away for family fun you may find you enjoy it so much that it becomes a regular part of your family life. But then again, that’s the goal—to have fun as a family on a regular basis. Now get out there and give it away for some family fun.
PS–If you are not sure where to volunteer or how to begin, take a jaunt to Volunteer Match for some great ideas.
Model kindness. You didn’t think I would start anyplace else, did you? Whatever we want our children to learn, we have to practice ourselves. So, be kind to your children. Be kind to your spouse. Be kind to friends. Be kind to strangers.
Encourage children to think kindly about others. Here are three ways you might consider doing this include: Pray for others. Take turns with your children recalling kind deeds you observed during the day. Take turns with your children recalling kind deeds you engaged in during the day.
Let your children take personal responsibility for the acts of kindness they engage in. Instead of giving your child money to donate to a charity, let them earn the money through chores and give a portion of their choice to the charity they choose. Be creative coming up with ways your children can take personal responsibility in their show of kindness.
Teach your children to consider other people’s feelings. You can do this by acknowledging their emotions—“That seems like it really makes you sad” or “Wow, you really look happy.” Acknowledge other people’s emotions as well. Perhaps a friend was mean because “he doesn’t feel well” or a friend was crying because “she gets sad when people tease her.” You get the idea. Help your child look beyond the outward behavior to see the underlying emotion.
Expose your child to need. Of course, we need to do this at an age appropriate level, but do not shelter your child from the needs around them. Depending on their age, they might understand the need for water in some countries, an elderly person’s need for friendly interaction, or a friend’s need for a hug.
Along with exposing your child to need, give them the opportunity to volunteer and meet the needs of others. This can range from helping an elderly neighbor with yard work to working with an inner city food bank to raising money for a mission to taking a mission trip. When you child sees a need and expresses a desire to help, assist them in volunteering.
Create giving traditions. As a family, develop traditions that involve giving to one another and to those outside your family. You might give toys to a charity each year or a financial donation to some charity. Maybe you will give gifts to friends and neighbors at special times throughout the year. Be creative and develop some giving traditions.
Encourage small acts of kindness. Teach your child to pick up trash rather than simply pass it by. Encourage your child to hold the door open for others, speak politely, offer to pick up something they see another person drop, give a hug to a friend in need…the list goes on. Encourage small acts of kindness.
What are some ways your family has carried out these 8 suggestions? What other suggestions would you add? How have you taught your children to be kind?