By Jeff Schrum
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, my wife and I worried that we were running out of time to help our two teens learn the self-care and coping skills they’ll need to launch themselves into an increasingly volatile world. No longer an elective, emotional intelligence is a prerequisite for teens coming of age in the 2020s. Thankfully, a happy and fulfilling life — which is what parents across cultures and continents say they want for their kids — is not a luxury reserved for a privileged few. Science reveals that the good life awaits those who make deliberate, daily efforts to cultivate positive emotions, such as joy, fulfillment, compassion, connectedness and resilience.
This is material I barely know myself, so when Yale’s popular “The Science of Well-Being” appeared in a list of free online personal development courses to take during the pandemic, it seemed like a good starting point. I convinced my older son, a 10th-grader, to join me, promising we could watch a few lectures, count the hours as social science credit (we home-school) and bail after a few weeks if he lost interest, a distinct possibility.
Laurie Santos, a psychology professor and head of college at Yale University, introduced the live class, “Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life”, in 2018, responding to an increase in anxiety and depression reported by students. “I was really seeing this mental health crisis that so many college students are facing really up close and personal in my role as head of college,” she said. Now the most popular course offered in the school’s history, “Psyc 157” arms students with evidence-based happiness strategies. After garnering worldwide interest and media attention, the university developed a free online version, called “The Science of Well-Being”, shortly thereafter. It boasts more than 2.6 million registrants — 2 million in the past two months alone. “That just made us realize that it wasn’t just Yale students who needed this content, you know, this is really the kind of thing that could help a lot of people”, Santos said. Similar free online courses from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of California, Berkeley, to name a few, show positive psychology’s high demand.
What is happiness?
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside, happiness researcher and author, suggests thinking of happiness as being both happy in your life, and being happy with your life. “Being happy in your life is the experience of fairly frequent positive emotions, like tranquility, joy, curiosity, pride, affection, etc.”, Lyubomirsky said. Happiness with your life is feeling an overall sense of satisfaction, that your life is good, meaningful and worthwhile, she continued.
Happiness isn’t gratification, although we tend to equate them, said Christine
Carter, author of “The New Adolescence” and senior fellow at Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “In our culture we are wildly confused about the difference between something that is gratifying or pleasurable, and something that will actually foster a positive emotion, like happiness,” she said. Pleasure is fleeting. Positive emotions, on the other hand, persist, reversing our fight-or-flight response, and activating a part of the brain that doesn’t leave us wanting more. “Fostering positive emotions, like gratitude, is going to create a lasting sense of well-being”.
This distinction between happiness and gratification is one of many myths and misconceptions I hope this experience has helped dispel for my son. The problem isn’t just that we tend to misunderstand what may and may not create lasting happiness, putting too much faith in things such as promotions, grades and possessions. It’s also that humans usually return fairly quickly to a baseline level of happiness after a positive or negative event — a tendency called hedonic adaptation. This can throw us for a loop if we expected something — for teens, this could be a new activity or course or relationship — to change our lives. Understanding hedonic adaptation is a very important life lesson for teens, Lyubomirsky said. “When you cease to be as excited as you were, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or the person, or the activity, or the job or the school,” she said.
After arming us with research and tips on cultivating happiness, Santos sent us off to practice our selected happiness strategies — habits correlated to increased well-being, optimism and emotional regulation — for the next four weeks. She calls these homework assignments “rewirements,” since they’re practices aimed at rewiring our habits. Creating new habits is the goal of the course. I chose gratitude, and my son chose meditation.
I was curious to see if my son would stick with his practice, because I know from experience that meditation can be challenging for beginners. Plus, I didn’t want to nag, because Carter says that interferes with adolescents’ sense of independence. “With a teenager you always have to be willing to walk away from your own agenda,” she counseled. Happily, my son practiced his 10- to 15-minute guided meditations (he used the Calm app) with minimal coercing, and seemed on most days to enjoy, or at least tolerate, his practice.
My gratitude practice felt forced at first. I scanned my day for positive moments, feelings and sensations, savoring them in the moment, then noting them in a journal each night. I began all entries with, “Grateful today for . . . ” followed by “. . . the pastel sky on the horizon at dusk tonight” or “. . . the fragrant honeysuckle along the trail on my evening walk” or “. . . the it’ll-do quarantine haircut [my wife] gave me,” trying to be as specific and detailed as possible.
The practice eventually came more naturally, and to head off hedonic adaptation, I will probably adjust the “dosage” from daily to weekly. Finding the right dosage is important, as is ensuring the strategies you use fit your personality and culture, advised Lyubomirsky. Variety is also key. “If you engage in these activities the same way every time, they’re going to lose their power,” she said.
Six weeks after recording my first gratitude journal entry, I still find myself instinctively scanning and savoring, grateful for brief moments of joy and awe and connection. I’m happier overall (most days), both with my life and in my life. My wife and sons see an improvement in me, too. My son kept up his daily meditation, which he now practices with his mom — another bonus from this experience. While he may not notice, it’s obvious to us that his confidence and motivation have improved. Plus, he seems to have more emotional bandwidth to regulate emotions as common triggers arise. When I mentioned that he seemed calmer and happier, he agreed.
With so many variables, we can never know the degree to which taking the class improved our felt sense of happiness and overall well-being. Regardless, the magic in this experience was in sharing it. We served as new-habit partners, which studies show correlates to success. Co-learning as peers allowed him to preserve his sense of independence and competence, critical components of teens’ motivation, according to Carter. It also afforded me an authentic way to model self-care and growth. “No self-respecting teenager wants support or instruction from somebody who can’t do it themselves,” she said.
Whether my son retains much from the course is irrelevant, she said. He ended up with a practice — meditation — that research shows will benefit him “in terms of improving his overall functioning, his ability to fulfill his potential, his overall well-being”. Finally, we made a connection, the kind that seemed infinitely possible when he was younger but that I now savor as if each is the last. (This, too, we learned in the course, is a happiness strategy.) Regardless of how much he retains from the class, Carter said, “you still found a way to connect with him, to just do something next to him. And we know that that is meaningful.”
Schrum is a freelance writer, volunteer crisis counselor and home-schooling dad in Virginia.