Is wellbeing something you do or something you have? I suspect that for many of us it is something we hope for but are not mindful of on a daily basis. Sonya Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness reminds us that 40% of our happiness comes from what we do, rather than our genes or what happens to us. This is certainly enough to make a real difference.
So how can we approach wellbeing in a practical way so that it becomes a daily routine? The 5 a day for wellbeing may be a good place to start. Just as a healthy diet includes 5 fruit and veg portions but doesn’t depend entirely on these foods I suggest we look at the The 5 a Day for Wellbeing which can be a quick daily wellbeing health check. For a more in depth look at wellbeing we have 10 ways to help children flourish which is a developmental approach to nurturing the skills children need to be happy, confident and successful.
5 a day for wellbeing was devised by The New Economics Foundation which researches the “new model of wealth creation, based on equality, diversity and economic stability”. How the economy impacts on wellbeing is core to their work. The 5 a day for wellbeing was launched in 2008 and can be read here
The 5 a day diet
1. Connect: first of all other people matter, children want to spend quality time with the people they care about with family, friends, and neighbours. These relationships are the cornerstones of a happy life and need time to develop and nurture. Building these connections will support and enrich a child’s life. In a busy world the time for love and friendships need to be protected from the intrusion of work/school, travel, shopping/cleaning, and homework. How can children be confident of having time with and being listened to by close family members? What routines in your family protect time together? Is it a daily mealtime? Story time? The chat you have about the day? How can you help to make time for their friends if playing out after school isn’t a practical possibility?
2. Be active: an active life is good for both physical health and for emotional wellbeing as moderate exercise releases endorphins. Children need an hour a day of activity which makes them slightly breathless. So go for a brisk walk or run. Get out that bike. Play a game. Visit a park or get out in the garden. If it is wet and cold you could always dance around the house. Exercising makes you feel good so help children discover a range of physical activities they enjoy so they can do something every day.
3. Take notice: encourage children to notice, appreciate and be mindful of all experience. Encourage curiousity, asking questions and appreciating the world around them. “What is that?” “How does that work?” Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Encourage children to savour each moment, be aware of what is happening now and what they are feeling. Reflecting on experiences will help a child appreciate what matters to them.
4. Value learning: for children learning can become a chore or something that is unending. When a child doesn’t get the chance to stop and appreciate what they have learnt so far it can undermine their confidence, all they see are the tasks ahead. it’s vital to celebrate achievements large and small. Focus on the CAN DO List rather than the TO DO list. Discover a child’s strengths and ensure they have the chance to use them. Use positive and constructive praise to let a child know what has gone well whether it was the effort they made or the result. Learning new things will create confidence as well as being fun.
5. Give: children love to get involved with things and make a contribution. It is fundamental to being human to take care of others but sometimes we see children as not being capable and restrict the ways they can contribute. Giving teaches children about the world around them. What do others need? How are people different from me? What can I do to help? Giving doesn’t have to be a grand gesture: do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Help out around the house. Looking outwards, as well as inwards develops empathy. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.
Beyond the 5 a day I would suggest these 10 principles as a sound basis to build children’s wellbeing.
10 Ways to Help Children Flourish: Positive Psychology has a growing evidence base on what creates wellbeing. Here are my top 10 ways to help children flourish.
- Nurture Positive Emotions – happiness, joy and contentment are not only pleasant experiences but they also broaden the mind, literally. Professor Barbara Frederickson’s research on positivity has established that positive emotions have 2 valuable effects: firstly they undo any of the physical tension and stress we may be feeling and then they allow us to look beyond our immediate concerns. Negative emotions can take us inwards or preoccupy us with handling a threat while positive emotions release energy and allow us to try new things or think creatively. We all get more done when the mood is right but why wait for the mood to appear out of the blue when you can create positivity yourself. Savouring and appreciating good things helps children to learn to stay with the positive and search it out when needed.
- Learn Optimistic Thinking: Life doesn’t always bring us flowers. Thinking optimistically reminds us that today’s challenges are transitory. Be aware of the 3 Ps which create pessimistic thinking: 1. that things are Personal (it’s my entire fault) 2. Pervasive (this will affect everything- it is hopeless) 3. Permanent (this will last and never go away). Optimistic thinking is open minded and looks for other explanations and most importantly for solutions. Optimistic thinking is essential for resilience which is the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
- Create Positive Relationships: we all need love and support but small children are biologically primed to seek adult protection and they will become very agitatedwhen they feel abandoned or threatened. Children need to feel safe and protected not only at home but in school and when playing with friends. A strong sense of community not only helps to protect children but also provides a secure base from which they can go forward to explore and experiment.
- Discover and Develop Strengths: each of us is unique and we are naturally drawn to do things which reflect our skills and interests. Using our strengths is an appealing way to build a sense of achievement; we enjoy both the process of doing the task and the outcome. Using our strengths give us energy and a zest for living. Becoming competent at something is a powerful motivator for further efforts. Children will have limited opportunities to use their strengths if they are too heavily focused on challenging, fast paced school work and the accompanying homework. Children need a balance between this adult-directed learning and the time to follow their own interests and develop their strengths.
- Talk about effort rather than ability: learning is a skill which, like a muscle, grows as a result of practice. Research from Carol Dweck identified a Growth Mindset as central to success as it encourages persistence. A child who believes learning is a skill which must be practiced will not give up when faced with a challenge but instead will set about solving the problem. Traditional psychology with its emphasis on intelligence testing has encouraged a fixed mindset which encourages the belief that ability has a ceiling and challenges may be a sign of being out of your depth. Professor Carol Dweck’s research has shown that children adopting a growth mindset make more progress than those with a fixed mindset.
- Learn something challenging but worthwhile: you may have read about the 10,000 hours it takes to develop expertise with a chosen skill. The original research was with violinists but it applies to other complex skills too. It takes real energy and commitment to learn a complex skill and you are unlikely to persevere unless you are passionately interested in what you are doing. On a smaller scale, having a hobby which is compelling creates that sense of meaning and purpose the experience of practice gives you satisfaction and hooks you in. Life satisfaction often comes from those hard won successes and you can never start too early or in too small a way.
- Lose track of time: deep and focused attention is a powerful skill which absorbs us completely and makes time stand still. Young children experience this in their play and athletes and experts do too while training or using their skill. Psychologists term this experience Flow and it is a vital skill for maintaining involvement when doing something difficult. Play is an ideal way to encourage children to experience flow and for older children dancing, sport and music can be easy ways into flow.
- Set compelling goals: children who have an idea of what they want from their future are happier and more successful. The very act of considering the future is a sign of self-awareness which is healthy. Short term goals are equally important encouraging children to set themselves challenges and monitor their progress. Keep it simple and realistic. Too many or too complex a set of goals can rebound and end in disappointment.
- Celebrate success: being a child is not an easy ride. Emotions run at full pelt and emotional insecurity is the brain’s default position unless sensitive adults support and protect. If that was not enough to contend, with there is also so much to learn that it can be sometimes over whelming for children who feel anxious and frightened of failure. So focusing on what is going well is vital. If you haven’t tried the 3 Good Things before this is what you do: take it in turns to talk about 3 things that have happened today which you are grateful for. Your choices can be personal achievements, pleasant experiences, acts of kindness given or received, beautiful things you have seen which gave you pleasure- the possibilities are endless. Strangely some people find this difficult to do despite the wide range of possibilities. This can happen when you are primed to look out for dangers and disappointments and the new way of looking at the world can take time to learn. It’s worth persevering.
- Practice Mindfulness: We tend to take our mind and mental wellbeing for granted in a way we would not do with our physical health. Mindfulness is the practice of being still and fully present in the moment which allows us to slow down and reduce stress. Mindfulness meditation practice can be valuable for adults and some teens. A simple way to encourage mindfulness for younger children is to find activities which absorb their complete attention without being mentally taxing. Slowly stroking a pet, concentrating on the softness of the fur; kicking your way through autumn leaves looking at the colours and textures; skimming stones on a pond and watching the ripples form all these activities encourage awareness of the detail of our immediate experience. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0