1. Tap into tradition.
Whether it's eating dinner together, observing birthdays and holidays, or reading bedtime stories every night, nothing is more valuable to your family than establishing rituals and traditions, says William Doherty, PhD, author of Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times (Sorin Books). Capital-T traditions -- lighting Sabbath candles or making Christmas cookies from a recipe passed down from your great-grandmother -- are important because they lend meaning to your child's life, reinforcing the bonds among family members and anchoring her to something beyond the purely temporal. Equally precious, however, are the small, seemingly inconsequential customs and rituals that are unique to your immediate family -- the fact that you order Chinese food on Friday nights, say, or compose a funny poem for your child's first day of school each year. The familiarity and predictability of these routines make a child feel safe.
2. Say it with a song.
Claims that listening to classical music will make your child smarter are greatly exaggerated, but there is no doubt about music's mood-altering qualities. In ancient times, music and musical instruments were believed to have powers that healed both the body and the mind. In modern times, countless teachers have documented the therapeutic effects of song (in one 1996 study at the University Hospitals of Cleveland, children who listened to "I've Been Working on the Railroad" while getting an inoculation felt less pain than those who didn't have music played for them). And most of us know from everyday experience that a great song lifts our spirits and eases stress. After all, it's pretty hard to be in a bad mood during a rollicking rendition of "Old McDonald Had a Farm," especially if the whole family joins in.
3. Be community minded.
Active participation in your community sends at least two important messages to your child. When you coach a Little League team, for example, or pitch in at your preschool's fund-raiser, your child realizes that what matters to her matters to you. And that gives her confidence a powerful boost. But on an even more fundamental level, your involvement underscores the value of community itself. It makes kids feel that they are part of a larger whole, and that individuals can affect others in a positive way. Not surprisingly, research has also found a strong correlation between altruism and happiness, so why not get your child involved in helping others? Take her along when you volunteer at a local soup kitchen, or join in a neighborhood cleanup. Even young kids can discover the satisfaction of giving back.
4. Curb your cynicism.
We live in an age of ironic detachment, so you may not always be aware of the corrosive effect your flip comments have on your child. Yet a cynical attitude can take a huge toll on your child's sense of security, a crucial component of happiness. Kids need to believe that the world is a good place and that people are basically decent. Never mind that you have concluded that your child's teacher is an idiot or that your elected officials are incompetent. When you voice these opinions, you undermine your child's faith in the people and the institutions around her. As a result, she may begin to view the world as a scary place.
5. Encourage your child's passions.
Happiness researchers agree that being truly absorbed in a challenging task is perhaps the surest route to happiness. Being completely caught up in an activity can be achieved through all sorts of endeavors, from stamp collecting to painting to automobile repair. That's why it's important to expose your child to a wide range of experiences to see what appeals to him. This is not, we hasten to point out, an endorsement of the frantic overscheduling that has befallen so many children. The idea is to make your child aware of all that's available, allowing him to gravitate toward one or two pursuits that are meaningful to him. Even if your child throws his intellectual and creative energy into what will almost certainly be a passing fancy -- collecting Pokemon cards, for instance, or playing basketball morning, noon, and night -- the ability to totally immerse himself in an activity he loves will give him a leg up on happiness throughout his life.