How to Raise Happy Kids: Commit Acts of Kindness

Doing a good deed is a win-win. It helps others and adds to the deed-doer's happiness.
Photograph by Priscilla Gragg

When you and your children pitch in to make a get-well card for Uncle Gary, you know you're making a difference in the life of someone who needs a lift. But showing kindness to others is also an effective way to get happier yourselves. Researchers call the warm glow we feel after doing something nice a "helper's high." And these good feelings start early. In a Canadian experiment, toddlers who gave their snacks to others were rated as happier than those who ate the treats themselves. In another study, kids ages 9 to 11 who did three kind things each week for a month (such as picking up litter or helping a sibling with homework) enjoyed greater feelings of happiness and more popularity at school, notes Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

To get the biggest feel-good bang out of helping others, consider Lyubomirsky's intriguing finding: "My studies revealed that practicing three to five acts of kindness per week may be ideal. If you do them all in one day it's especially powerful." This may be because same-day deeds don't get so lost in daily routine. So go ahead: devote some family time to not-so-random acts of caring. Doesn't that sound like a lot more fun than doing chores anyway?

Make Happy Happen

  1. Declare a weekly Three Good Deeds Day. Challenge each family member to chalk up a trio of thoughtful acts, then report back at dinnertime. To chart how much kindness your family can spread (good karma in the bank!), get our printable Good Deeds Tracker (see below) to hang on your fridge.
  2. Keep a kindness fund. Donate together to a favorite charity. The bonus payoff: feeling happier than if you had treated yourself. (In a 2007 study, when researchers gave subjects $5 cash, those who spent it for the good of others reported just that result.) To make it fun, tag a jar with our printable Kindness Fund label (see below), set it in a central spot, and be sure deposits are greeted with hearty cheers.

Volunteer Together

Boost the feel-good benefit from altruism by donating time as a family. These sites can connect you with organizations and ideas that let the whole gang pitch in:

  • doinggoodtogether.org: This site shares a slew of creative charitable projects, with step-by-step directions, from baking biscuits for shelter dogs to cleaning up trash in your local park.
  • generationon.org: The organization is all about getting kids excited to help out in their communities, with suggestions by age and interest.
  • volunteermatch.org: Type in a zip code to find nearby family-friendly opportunities or long-distance ways to assist, such as sending care packages to U.S. troops.

A Happy Gene?

It's true: some of us are just happier by nature. That's why one family may have a glum Eeyore and a bouncing Tigger sitting at the same dinner table. But while genetics account for about 40 percent of our feelings of well-being, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, the rest is a combination of our life circumstances and our behavior. That suggests it's often within a family's power to improve the overall household mood. "Happiness is best thought of not as an inborn trait," says Christine Carter, "but as a set of skills that can be taught."

The Wish List ...

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

  • More time to just play together
  • A real Pokémon
  • A dolphin
  • More hugs and kisses
  • Everlasting world peace
  • All the Lego sets
  • A library full of books
  • A sailboat that has a room in it
  • Dogs that pick up their own poop

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.

Family Fun

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