How to Raise Happy Kids: Celebrate Sunny Thinking

With some basic tactics, you can help kids develop an optimistic worldview.

Boy holding large paper sun
Photo: Photograph by Priscilla Gragg

We humans evolved to be on the lookout for the bad, what scientists call a "negativity bias." Sure, this worked for our early ancestors. You don't want to be admiring the daffodils and oblivious to the charging lion. In the modern world, however, this same tendency can make pessimists of us all. The good news: we can train ourselves to look on the bright side. "Our brains are giant filters, and they look for patterns," says Christine Carter. "If you practice looking for the good, you're saying to your brain, 'This is what's important.' You'll establish new neural connections that way."

One easy technique for encouraging optimism -- in your kids and yourself -- is a routine Carter started when her daughters were small. At bedtime, she'd take a moment to recount three good things from her day, then have the girls do the same. "There is plenty of scientific evidence that the regular and conscious practice of gratitude increases well-being, both physical and emotional," she says. At the very least, it'll bring sweet dreams, and at the most, it'll foster many sunny days ahead for the ones you love.

Make Happy Happen

  1. Play bright-side bingo on errands. On our printable bingo cards (see below), kids cross off squares when they spot an upbeat moment, such as someone being helpful or a friendly good-bye.
  2. Be a spin doctor. When your child complains about losing a Lego piece, say "Maybe someone else will find it and build something cool!" You can even turn this into a fairly hilarious game, spinning wild "unfortunately/fortunately" scenarios.

Brighter Starts

Put a smile on everyone's face by trading in your go-to breakfast for one of these morning meals fortified with mood-boosting nutrients, as recommended by Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of The Happiness Diet.

  • Instead of a frozen breakfast entrée, eat 2 eggs scrambled with chopped kale or spinach, pumpkin seeds, and a sprinkle of curry powder.
  • Instead of a mega muffin, eat a smoothie with cocoa powder, frozen banana or blueberries, kale, and coconut water or milk.
  • Instead of instant oatmeal, honey, and nuts, eat steel-cut oats with fresh fruit, honey, and nuts.

The Wish List ...

We asked kids: What would you wish for to make your family happier?

  • We'd be together all day every day.
  • We'd all live in a castle.
  • We'd have Thanksgiving and Christmas every day.
  • We'd play outside more often. It would never be cold or rainy.
  • We'd have lots of money. I mean TONS!
  • We'd never get sick ever ... or throw up.

From FamilyFun's Happiness Survey. Nearly 300 members of our Reader Panel responded to that survey, conducted last November. All were parents of children ages 5 to 12. After completing their portion of the survey, the parents then asked one of their kids to answer two other questions.

  • Click here for our bright-side bingo card.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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