January 10, 2024
By Dr Kathy Weston
Well, here we are, 2024 has arrived. You probably feel you have been bombarded with digital content suggesting you kickstart the new year with new goals and aspirations with the aim of increased personal happiness. However, I have a different suggestion that stems from extensive research on the psychology of happiness. Let’s practise the art of savouring everyday joyous experiences. Perhaps we already have everything we need to be content?
So how does that work? Well, rather than racing through daily life, perhaps unfairly comparing ourselves, our bodies and our achievements to others, attempting to make as much money, and as many friends as possible, we might instead reflect on what went well for us in 2023, what existing habits we wish to sustain, and the memories and experiences that gave us joy. In other words, what do we want to savour? As Dr Laurie Santos at Yale says: Savouring is when we “step out of our experience, look back and go WOW! It can help us remember, keeps us in the moment and stops our minds wandering”. In other words, to savour experience anchors us in that which is psychologically beneficial.
Taking my own advice to heart at the turn of the year, I thought hard about the things that give me a sense of joy. One of those things is taking a stroll with a chatty friend, and being able to get things off my chest whilst walking in nature. I did this yesterday and have chosen not to rush past the experience. I revisited our walk this morning in my mind, reflecting on just how good it felt, and why. I recalled the views that made us gasp at the top of the Downs, I chuckled recalling the mud we endured and my inappropriate footwear. I reflected on how pleasant it was to give morning greetings to fellow walkers who responded with smiles. I can still taste and savour the large, delicious hot chocolate in the beautiful, wide-rimmed cup that we enjoyed at the end of our walk.
By dwelling on the granularity within these everyday experiences, I can gain so much more from it. By noticing what makes me feel good and by attempting to do more of the same, I can start 2024 with a sense of optimism and purpose. I can also begin to model techniques for thriving within family life.
It is well documented that the things we think will make us happy don’t tend to, and that as humans, we tend to focus on the ‘wrong’ things. In other words, our mind plays tricks on us.
Ask your teens, for example, what they think would make them feel exceptionally happy. Young people typically list materialistic goals such as having the latest iPhone, earning big sums or owning a house with a pool. Others might dwell on body improvements (the desire to be slimmer, or even more ‘buff’ are common aspirations today often driven by social media). But these things won’t significantly boost subjective wellbeing as much as some of the simpler stuff, and it is important our children know this. It is good to have goals and aspirations but we can’t rely on those to give us a deep sense of life satisfaction. Instead, we can help them get into good habits that will serve them well throughout their life journeys. Some essential habits to encourage are savouring moments mindfully, practising gratitude and carrying out acts of kindness towards others.
When kick-starting conversations with teens about what they feel grateful for, remember to drop all assumptions and avoid being prescriptive. We need to give them a voice in terms of what they feel gives them joy. We can’t just tell them to savour particular experiences nor nudge them towards gratitude about particular elements of their lives. During our Christmas day meal, I asked my children what they were grateful for in their lives and their responses made me smile. In amongst the gratitude for summer travel and fun times with friends, my youngest earnestly expressed sincere gratitude towards the actor Tom Hanks, who he feels made the greatest film ever made, Cast Away. Who am I to judge?
My eldest’s response surprised me too. In amongst the gratitude for good GCSE results and a nice trip abroad back in May, he expressed gratitude for his fun-loving uncle being in his life. As parents, we can take these conversations further by accepting and acknowledging what they say (never mocking or questioning) and encouraging them to reflect on what it was about those experiences or those people that gives them a sense of joy. Herein we might unearth more about what makes our children tick and more about what matters to them.
Gratitude can be a healing aid that can support us through loss, grief or distress. Rather than dwell on the gravity of our loss, over time we might begin to express gratitude for the life spent, the time we had with our loved one and savour that bank of magnificent memories. The extent to which we choose to be grateful is within our control and as such, can boost our mental health and resilience.
Acts of kindness aren’t just for Christmas! These too can fuel a sense of satisfaction. You likely knew this already: how good it feels to give back, to put a smile on someone’s face or surprise them. In altruism, we find agency and empowerment. It is the same for children who are encouraged to be kind towards others. I often suggest to parents, who have children with low self-esteem, that they give their children opportunities to give back and find ways to relieve someone else’s distress, poverty or suffering. It may feel counter-intuitive, but in serving others, we might just come to like and appreciate ourselves a little bit more.
As a family unit, in one day you can highlight the relationship between altruism, wellbeing and happiness. Choose a day to pack in as many acts of kindness as humanly possible. In other words, be as intentional as possible about it. Share what happened at the end of the day, the responses you got and how it all made you feel. What have you learned?
Talking of being grateful…11,000 people read this weekly newsletter and over 20,000 parents and educators subscribe to our digital platform of evidence-based approaches to parenting, family life and education, Tooled Up.
Within Tooled Up Education, we share the freshest research insights in ways that are useful and actionable for parents and educators. We try to ascertain what works and what might not work when it comes to supporting children and young people. We keep our finger on the research pulse and continually curate and produce classroom resources, articles, podcasts and even bespoke talks for our ‘Tooled Up’ subscribers. One hundred schools in the UK, Ireland, Greece, Italy and China enjoy our support, as do many businesses in the UK and Ireland.
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Tooled Up subscribers have much to look forward to over the coming months. January features a packed schedule of online events covering everything from phonics to family law. You can see a full schedule of our upcoming events here.
Educators, watch out for two fascinating webinars on the role of digital technology. World-renowned learning expert Professor Daniel Willingham talks to us on January 24th about how digital technology affects reading. Register here for his insights into e-readers, social media and literacy. Then, on January 31st, attend our fascinating panel on assistive technology for SEN students. Register here to attend and come away with expert knowledge and ideas for supporting students.
Parents, watch out for our webinars on phonics and early reading and writing. On January 12th, teacher-practitioner Natalie Kneller talks us through the different skills that young children need for their first steps in learning to write. Register here for her webinar.
On January 19th, Professor Kathy Rastle will explain the principles and benefits of phonics instruction to parents who might be encountering phonics for the first time, or who want to learn more about how to support phonics at home. You can attend her useful, encouraging webinar by registering here.
One of our biggest passions at Tooled Up is helping to develop resilience in children. On January 16th, Dr Kathy Weston and metacognition expert Liz Keable will discuss the importance of normalising mistakes in family life so we can help reduce academic anxiety. Register here for this useful and reassuring discussion.