Happiness is a Skill Kids Can Learn & Practice

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A parent’s job is to teach their kids life skills. Skills such as self care, how to read and write, what to do in an emergency, tying their shoes or how to play an instrument or sport. 

But can parents also teach their kids happiness?

Many people think of happiness as a matter of innate personality traits (such as temperament, cheerfulness and outlook) and life circumstances. Basically, if you have a positive attitude and you catch a couple of lucky breaks in life you’ll be happy. Conversely, if you go through a series of external challenges and are more of a “glass half empty” person, you’ll be miserable. 

But, as it turns out, happiness comes down to a set of skills you can teach to your kids and help them practice until they become routine habits.

Why Teach Happiness

In short, the happier we are, the more successful we become.

Research has long shown that happy people are more successful across a multitude of life domains:

Happy people are also better able to multitask and endure boredom and are more creative, trusting and helpful.Teaching happiness to kids has protected students against the decline in self satisfaction, satisfaction with friends and positive emotions that are typically reported by kids starting their middle school years.

In other words, teaching happiness is one of the best things you can do to set your kids up for success in both the short and long term.

The RULER Framework for Teaching Happiness

As you can likely tell, “RULER” is an acronym for five skills that can be taught and practiced to increase happiness:

  • Recognizing emotions: How am I feeling right now? Physical cues such as posture, energy levels, breathing and heart rate, can help children identify what emotions they’re feeling throughout the day and how their feelings have affected their interactions with others.
  • Understanding the causes of emotions: What happened that led me to feel this way? Figuring out possible causes behind feelings can help kids anticipate and manage uncomfortable feelings and help them consciously embrace things that lead feels we want to foster.
  • Labeling emotions accurately: What words best describe how I’m feeling right now? Both adults and children have access to more than 2,000 words in the English language that can describe emotions. However, most of us stick to a limited vocabulary (“good”, “fine”, “sad”, “mad”, etc.). Cultivating a rich emotional vocabulary allows children to pinpoint and communicate exactly how they’re feeling.
  • Expressing emotions appropriately: How can I express myself in this time and place? Explaining to kids what we are doing and why when it comes to expressing our feelings gives them models they can follow when they express their own emotions at home, with friends or at school.

Regulating emotions: How do I continue feeling emotions I want to feel or shift my feelings if I’m not? Strategies to manage emotions both in the moment and in the long term are critical to overall happiness.

Tools and Activities that Teach Happiness

In addition to modeling behaviors and actions that demonstrate the RULER framework in action, parents, teachers and other adults can promote emotional intelligence and happiness skills through activities and games.

Mood meters

The mood meter is a simple and concrete tool that helps shift conversations about feelings away from the rote “good” or “fine” to more nuanced responses like “curious”, “excited”, “scared” or “confident”.

Mood meters have two axes: 

  • The horizontal axis represents how pleasant or “good” it feels to experience this emotion. The far left represents the least pleasant you can imagine feeling and the far right represents the most pleasant. 
  • The vertical axis represents how much physical energy we feel while experiencing an emotion. The bottom of the range represents feeling drained of all energy, as if you can hardly move. The top of the axis represents feeling essentially the maximum amount of energy possible in your body.

When plotted out, these axes form 4 color-coded quadrants

  • Red: The top left quadrant containing high-energy and unpleasant feelings
  • Yellow: The top right quadrant represents energetic and pleasant emotions
  • Blue: The bottom left quadrant is made up of unpleasant feelings that rob us of physical energy
  • Green: The bottom right quadrant has higher energy and more pleasant emotions

Image by: Solutions for a Better Day

By using the mood meter, kids learn how to recognize their emotions based on what they’re feeling physically and emotionally. 

As children learn to use the mood meter they learn more and more feelings words to describe emotions that fall into each quadrant, helping them to label their emotions with more nuance and depth than before. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the mood meter tool is that it teaches kids that there are no “good” or “bad” feelings.

There are feelings that are more pleasant or energizing than others, but all emotions are valid and ok to feel. And for less pleasant feelings, they can use the mood meter to recognize, understand and label those feelings and use that information to better express and respond to those feelings.

Read-alouds

Read-alouds activities involve reading a story or scenario and then having children discuss and answer questions about the characters thoughts and emotions over the course of the narrative. These stories can be anywhere from just a few paragraphs for younger kids, all the way up to full chapter books as they get older. 

Read-Aloud Sample Questions
RecognizeWhat is the character feeling in this moment? How do you know they’re feeling that way?
UnderstandWhat happened in the story to make the character feel this way? What makes you feel this way in real life?
LabelWhere would this character’s feeling fall on the mood meter? What color would you give this feeling?
ExpressWhat did the character do or how did they act when they felt this emotion? What else do people do with they feel this way?
RegulateWhat could the character do to help them feel something more pleasant? What do you do when you feel this way? What would you do for a friend who was feeling this way?

For younger kids, pairing a read-aloud with the mood meter helps them practice applying emotional intelligence to the story’s character in a context with which they are familiar and experienced. 

Printing out pictures of characters from the story and moving them around a mood meter as their feelings change helps kids better prepare to deal with their own range of emotions.

Read-alouds are great activities to expand children’s knowledge of feelings and introduce them to new vocabulary for expressing their emotions. Parents and teachers can choose specific stories that are relevant to certain vocabulary they want to teach. 

A story about a visit to the dentist can be used to teach words like “nervous”, “anxious” or “confident”.

Sharing personal experiences with emotions

Parents and teachers can share short and simple stories about a life experience and describe the emotions they felt during this experience. Hearing about the feelings and experiences of adults helps children understand helpful ways to express and regulate their emotions. 

By openly talking about their own feelings and describing how those emotions looked and felt and how they expressed them, parents and teachers can foster an environment where children feel safe and supported in sharing their own feelings. 

Like a read-aloud, personal stories should involve a discussion surrounding your feelings and actions. 

Conclusion

Parents, teachers and other caregivers can help children develop and practice the skill of happiness through a whole slew of games and activities. Embedding the RULER framework and tools such as mood meters and read-alouds, we can help kids develop the EQ foundation necessary for lasting happiness. 

Whichever tools and activities you use, what matters is taking the time to help kids recognize and understand their emotions so they can express them in an appropriate and constructive manner. 

By taking these few, simple steps, you can boost you children’s EQ and help better prepare them for long-term successful outcomes in all facets of their life.

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