The Secret to Happiness and Happy Kids
It’s not often that people congregate to discuss happiness, as much as our lives might be consumed in search of it. But that is just what happened last Friday, when Dr. Raj Raghunathan, a professor at the University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business and researcher of happiness, delivered a talk at the American School of Bombay.
John Smithies, principal of the elementary school, set the scenario: In his interactions with parents of toddlers just starting preschool, he invariably hears parents say they “just want their child to be happy” when asked what they expect of the school. But when children reach middle school, the conversation shifts; suddenly, parents want schools to be instrumental in helping children get good grades and get into good colleges. So — do parents not want happy kids, or are they misguided about how to get there?
Raghunathan started to answer that question with a live social experiment, asking the parent community to think of three wishes they would request if a genie popped up that minute. Later, he helped the audience categorise those wishes; most people, Raghunathan said, make wishes related to wealth, success, or fame. Very few actually ask for happiness.
Perhaps it is because we assume these achievements will make us happy, even though what actually makes us happy is something quite different. And Raghunathan has spent the better part of his life studying what that is.
Once our basic necessities are met, Raghunathan explained, human beings have three main goals: (1) to develop mastery, that is to have mastered a skill or a talent beyond an average level; (2) to have a sense of belonging, that is, intimate relationships with a set of people around whom you can be yourself without fear of being judged; and (3) to have autonomy and feel like you are in control of all important life decisions.
The way we set about achieving these goals is affected by our underlying mindset. There are two kinds of mindsets, Raghunathan said: the abundance mindset and the scarcity mindset.
An abundance-oriented person works towards mastery through pursuing a state of flow, when one is so absorbed in a task, that nothing can distract or come in the way. They find a sense of belonging by expressing their love and compassion toward others, and they achieve autonomy by being in control of their own actions and emotions.
On the flipside, someone with a scarcity mindset works towards mastery through comparison, constantly asking whether they are better than the next person. They have a need to be loved, a desire to feel they belong, and a craving to feel in control by exerting power over others.
It is a common misconception, Raghunathan said, that the scarcity mindset leads to more career and life success. We often justify this to each other by saying it’s a dog-eat-dog world and everyone must look out for themselves. But studies have found it isn’t true: People with an abundance mindset make better employees and better leaders. They are likely to be more positive than their scarcity-mindset counterparts. And this is what sets them up for success in life.
But one’s mindset is not consistent across all aspects of life, Raghunathan warned. A person may have an abundance mindset in relationships, but a scarcity mindset when it comes to material wealth. And Raghunathan had some tips for the ASB community and parents everywhere on how this information can be applied to parenting.
Self-awareness is perhaps the most important skill for parents to develop. Ask yourself, he suggested: Do I want my kid to eat his veggies because it’s good for him or because I “told him so”? Once we recognize what kind of mindset is driving our actions, we can slowly begin to change them. Parents can encourage their kids to improve by focusing on being better than they were at the last attempt, instead of being better than classmates.
Being cognizant of the messages children are picking up from other adults is also an important piece of the puzzle. Raghunathan shared a story to illustrate his point: Once, he was hosting guests who were excited when his son returned from a football match. They asked his son how many goals he scored, and whether his team won. Upon hearing he was on the winning side, the guests proceeded to hug the boy and shower him with affection.
Raghunathan said the exchange communicated winning over others is of prime importance – but that’s not the message we should be reinforcing. Instead, he suggested, the next time your kid comes back from a football match, or piano class, or school, simply ask her: “Did you have fun?”
Raghunathan admited it isn’t as easy as it seems and that he himself isn’t quite where he would like to be in terms of having a growth mindset. We certainly don’t have all the answers to happiness yet, he said. But we are better equipped for asking ourselves – and our kids — the right questions.