But, can joy be cultivated? And, if yes, can we teach our children to be more joyful and happy in their lives?
You might be surprised, but the answer to both questions is YES. First you have to acknowledge what kinds of practices bring true happiness, not just temporary pleasure, and once you have mastered that, it’s not difficult to introduce those practices to children in a way that they can understand and appreciate.
Practice of compassion and caring for others is the key to better relationships, health, and emotional well-being. Resent researches in this area have shown that mindfulness practice can help rewire our brains for happiness. Mindfulness meditation has proven to reduce stress and increase happiness. Practice these two powerful practices to cultivate gratitude and build resilience in difficult times.
1. Practice Gratitude
Pay attention to what you are grateful because it can change the channel of your negative thinking and help you appreciate what is here in your life right now instead. For deeper and better effect, it’s important to let yourself fully experience gratitude when it’s here. Then, take your time and flavor the moment! Even just a few seconds of recognizing the positive feelings of gratitude when they arise help to strengthen their impacts.
Here are a couple of ways we encourage the practice of gratitude:
Gratitude meditation for adults
Sit quietly in a relaxed posture and focus your heart center. When you inhale, visualize breathing in kindness; when you exhale, allow negativity to be released. Then try to reflect on some blessing in your life, could be any person or thing that you are grateful for. Or simple things like having eyes to see, food to eat, and air to breathe; Whatever it is, take time to say a quiet “thank you” and try to mindfully experience the good feelings in your body.
Other good practice is to writing down a gratitude letter. List three good things in a diary just before going to bed at night, or share your appreciation for others when you encounter them in your everyday life.
No matter what gratitude practice you are doing, you deepen your feelings of happiness and increase the joy around you.
Gratitude exercises for children
How to introduce gratitude to your own children? Try sharing. Sharing will help you and your children build deeper family bonds. Start simple gratitude practice at the dinner hour. You may hold hands with your children and all share something that you were grateful for that day such as seeing your friends, noticing the beautiful nature around you and so on.
When children are at school, here is an exercise that we suggest Gather the children in a circle and introduce the “special stone.” Explain that you will pass the stone around and only the person that holds it, may share what they are grateful for. Being creative, and with a little encouragement, children will come up with many ideas, like “I’m grateful for having a cat” or “snuggling with my cat”.
Teachers can encourage kids to write down what they are grateful for in a special notebook or a in a special journal to make “gratitude flags” (writing down what they are grateful for an a small pieces of fabric which they can place in the schoolyard).
2. Practices for Challenging Times
As we know – life is not always joyful, nor should it be. It constantly brings challenges (good and bad), but the most important thing for us is to breed joy in our lives not to avoid the inevitable difficulties, but to meet them with strength and compassion.
Gratitude and other skills we discuss here, like intention, mindfulness, compassion, can be and should be cultivated constantly because they all lead to greater happiness and social-emotional well-being.
Embracing difficulties is a vital part of awakening joy. The more we understand suffering and are willing to come to terms with it, the greater the possibility of developing a mind that is not afraid of the hard stuff when it comes.
Pain, anger, fear, or sadness are feelings that we often experience when we suffer. RAIN is an acronym may help us to directly open to and work skillfully with these difficult feelings. Here are the steps for the abovementioned practice:
- Recognizewhat you’re feeling. Let you be more opened to emotions of sadness, anger, or fear, and name it.
- Allowit to be here. Don’t try to change it. Let go of any agenda and, for a few moments, give it permission to be just as it is.
- Investigatehow it feels in your body on an energetic level without getting into the story behind it or trying to get rid of it. Bring a curiosity or interest that involves simply exploring the landscape of your emotion without needing to figure it out.
- Non-identification – meaning, don’t take it personally; don’t assume the experience reflects who you are at your core. Don’t say to yourself, “I’m an angry person” but recognize that everyone experiences emotions; they are part of the human condition. Open up to that truth and don’t let it define you.
If exploring your difficult emotions is too hard for you, practice a little mindful breathing or gratitude, and go back to exploring your emotions later. This will help you to be kind to yourself, while bringing more balance to your emotions.
Self-compassion for adults
Researcher Kristin Neff suggests placing your hand on your heart and sending yourself positive messages, like “Suffering is a part of life” and “May I hold my suffering with kindness and compassion.” Mindful self-compassion practices have the potential to increase calmness and decrease emotional reactivity toward others. This will help you take setbacks less personally.
Practicing self-compassion involves turning your caring attention toward yourself, remembering that your pain is something everyone experiences. When going through difficult times or working with a difficult experience, the most important thing is to be compassionate and caring toward yourself. Do not beat yourself up about it and invoke more pain.
Helping children navigate difficult times
It comes naturally for parents to want to “be there” for their children, to support their growth and well-being. However, being there for them all the time, and not allowing them to experience difficulties and frustrations, can keep them from learning resiliency or the power of handling their emotions with wisdom and compassion. Have in mind the over-protected children often become more anxious than their peers and have trouble bouncing back from setbacks.
As we mentioned before about adults, the same goes for children. In order to help them go through difficult times, we need to encourage joy practices, like practicing gratitude and mindfulness which during the good times gives them energy to put in a concentrated effort when things are difficult—sort of like charging a battery.
We are not trying to ignore their feelings like sadness, anger, fear, or pain. We want to teach our children to express their emotions in healthy ways rather than stuffing them down or exploding.
Reframing kids’ thoughts
One thing teachers can do in the classroom is to help children find antidotes to negative thinking—often a big source of stress for kids as well as adults. Children get a lot of negative messaging, and they need ways to counteract that so that it doesn’t lead them down a spiral of despair or helplessness. Reframing or correcting distorted thinking is one way to change negative thinking into realistic thinking.
One exercise involves giving children a sheet of paper that has been divided in two. On one side, the children write down one or more of their own negative thoughts—the kind that tends to run around in their heads, like “I’m not good at math” or “No one likes me.” On the other side, they write down the opposite or the antidote to those negative thoughts, like “I find math challenging, but I’m taking on that challenge and it’s OK if I don’t get every answer right; I’m learning,” or “Just because one person was mean to me doesn’t mean I’m not likable; I can keep being open and kind to others, because that helps me connect and be a good friend.”
We want to teach children to express their emotions in healthy ways rather than stuffing them down or exploding.
Then teachers can ask their students to notice throughout the next day or week when the more positive antidotes run through their minds and encourage them to focus on these when a negative thought arises. By doing this, you are helping to rewire their brains to pay attention to the positive and make it their natural, default setting. This helps kids to be courageous when things get tough, and to not get bogged down in self-defeating thoughts.
Encourage compassion in kids
Another thing that helps is fostering compassionate action. When we learn how to help others who are going through hard times, it can help us to strengthen our relationships, an important resource in challenging situations.
Try this: Ask children to think of someone—a person or an animal or even “the earth”—who is having a hard time. It can be someone they are familiar with or whom they don’t know well.
Then ask them to think of an action they could take to make things better. It’s important to encourage kids to take baby steps and not expect them to solve the whole problem. But they can do small things like write a get-well letter to a sick relative, make a quick phone call to a friend who fell down at school, give a hug to a pet that’s been home alone all day, or water the thirsty plants outside. Encouraging kids to notice others going through challenging times and to take positive steps helps them to stay attuned to the world around them. And it feels great!
We believe that sharing mindfulness and social-emotional practices are vital not only to the next generation but to the well-being of our planet. Whenever we teach our children—and ourselves—to shine a light on the good and to rest our minds on uplifting moments, we are strengthening the ability to empathize with others, feel more connected, build resilience, and be inspired to make this a better world. And that makes for a more joyful life for all!