By Kimberly Witt
March 9, 2023
I love podcasts. My teenage sons roll their eyes every time they hear me say, “I was listening to this podcast today, and I learned…” One of my favorite podcasts, “The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos,” is devoted to helping us all learn how to be happier by using research-based strategies. Santos, a psychology professor at Yale, also offers free classes through Coursera on “The Science of Well-Being,” including one geared specifically for teens. I’ve found many of the techniques she shares about how to be happy can apply to the way we parent our teens!
1. Choose Gratitude
In one episode of “The Happiness Lab,” Santos interviews PJ and Alex, the hosts of the podcast “Reply All.” PJ and Alex are famous for their complaining, but in this episode Santos teaches them that their griping might be negatively affecting their happiness.
I’ve practiced the art of gratitude since long before I listened to this episode, but this episode was a good reminder to keep going with it. I’ve incorporated the art of gratitude into my family life by having each family member take turns stating one simple thing we are thankful for at the conclusion of our family meals. There’s always something to be grateful for: from a thoughtful text from a friend to making it through a math test, we name our specific gratitudes. On rough days, we might go deeper and say we are thankful for being alive.
I’m also a proud member of a gratitude group put together by a former coworker. Essentially, it’s an email chain with several other women, many of whom I’ve never met in real life. Each day we ‘reply all’ and share three things we are thankful for. Each day we ‘reply all’ and share three things we are thankful for. Yesterday it was the beauty of street lights reflected on icy pavement, the sound of my sons and husband playing ping pong in the basement, cuddles with our pup Rooney. Yes, there are days I’m full of complaints and gripes, but I’ve seen over and over that the simple act of pausing, reflecting, and listing three specific things can shift my attitude from grumbly to grateful.
2. Choose the Present Moment
In another episode of “The Happiness Lab,” Santos interviews Tony Hale, who you might recognize as Buster from Arrested Development, one of our family’s favorite sitcoms. He’s also the author of a children’s book titled Archibald’s Next Big Thing, inspired by Hale’s happiness lesson.
Hale recounts how he spent years of his life chasing after the “next big thing” and never being satisfied, even when he landed his dream role on a wildly popular sitcom. The thought pattern Hale describes is known as the “arrival fallacy” or “happily-ever-after fallacy.”
My older son, like most high school seniors, gets stuck in those “I’ll be happy when…” thought patterns when he dreams about life being better once he’s in college or settled into a career. I easily fall prey to those thought patterns as I trudge through what feels to be a never-ending Minnesota winter. In those times, I gently try to remind him and myself to be present, to find happiness now, not just in the future. I won’t just be happy in spring,” I whisper to myself as I admire the present beauty of melting icicles. “I am happy now.”
3. Befriend Your Emotions
A second takeaway from Santos and Hale is “What you resist, persists.” I have to say, I agree. When I’m feeling particularly stressed about a parenting situation, I’m tempted to pretend the problem doesn’t exist or run away from the problem toward the next big thing. But I’ve learned through experience, if I don’t address my parenting problems, they will continue to pop up again, and again.
Santos and Hale suggest listening to our negative emotions instead of ignoring them. What are my emotions and the negative voices in my head trying to tell me? As much as I hate doing it, I need to learn to sit with my discomfort.
Similarly, I can encourage my sons to learn to sit with their discomfort, too. When they face a big math exam or feel anxious about an upcoming basketball game, I remind them to listen to the anxious voices and honor what they are telling us. After acknowledging the emotion, however, sometimes we need to silence the voices that aren’t serving us in the moment. Like Tony Hale, we can talk back to them: “I hear you. I know you’re trying to help me, but not now. I have a test to take.”
4. Use Grounding Techniques
A third takeaway from Santos and Hale is about the power of grounding techniques. Hale uses the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, which uses the five senses to redirect focus and ground. The grounding technique goes like this: name five things you see, four things you touch, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.
Another grounding technique I employ when I’m feeling overwhelmed is called color grounding or rainbow grounding. I think of one color at a time and name the things I see in that color around me: “I see a yellow dish towel, his yellow sneakers, the yellow tea kettle.” These simple grounding techniques can get me out of my head and back into the present. And that’s a good place to be!
5. Invent Personal and Family Rituals
I particularly love “The Happiness Lab” episode “The Power of a Made Up Ritual” because Santos discusses using homemade routines. This idea resonates with me because it confirms my belief that something I was already doing leads to more happiness. According to Santos, incorporating rituals into our daily life gives us a sense of control, particularly in times of loss. These rituals can be the everyday actions that give your day a sense of meaning — like, sipping a cup of tea before bed or applying favorite lotion after your shower. Rituals can also be made-up routines unique to your family.
We have concocted several happiness practices in our family. Each morning, as my sons leave for school, either my husband or I pick up our little dog Rooney so we can all wave from the window. After dinners, on the nights we’re all at home, we clean the kitchen together while playing one of our favorite soundtracks. On Sundays, as my family drives to church, we complete the New York Times weekly news quiz together, all of us providing input for the answers and discussing various hot topics along the way. These routines give our days and weeks meaning and rhythm, and they help us feel connected at the same time. We all value them, including my teens. How do I know? If I forget to start the quiz within the first few blocks of our drive, one of them is sure to remind me.
I often want to scream “Where is the manual?” as I parent my teens. But talking with my girlfriends, I’ve come to realize that we’re all stumbling around in the dark, looking for a light switch that probably doesn’t even exist. Thankfully, we live in a world full of experts. I’m happy to learn parenting strategies from all of them, including Dr. Laurie Santos and The Happiness Lab and the resources available here at Your Teen.
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