Monday, May 24, 2010

A Pessimist reads Raising Happiness

Even as a small child, I usually worried that things would go wrong. Almost every positive future scenario was met with scrutiny: "What if it rains that day?" "What if the car won't start?"

Even this blog springs from my basic assumption that life demand scrutiny and preparation.

In retrospect, I think I wanted insurance against life's disappointments. Decades later, a tornado taught me that being able to protect a placid life is unrealistic and even actual insurance can leave one disappointed and adrift.

Our son's earliest months paralleled some of my most insecure and anxious times, so his tendency toward panic comes as little surprise. I feel tremendous sadness when I see his disproportionate reactions to disappointment or injury.

Because I believe some of his poor reactions are learned from my example, it isn't hard to believe that (with mindful parenting) better reactions can be taught. But how can I, a pessimist, teach my children skills I never really acquired?

Through a friend's reference to a popular happiness book for adults, I stumbled upon a listing for Christine Carter's Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

At the time, the book was in pre-release, so I wrote the publishers (Ballantine Books) to request a review copy. Still feeling a reader's high from NutureShock, I allowed myself to hope that a parenting book could be more than a pile of recycled "conventional wisdom" and unfounded opinion. I especially liked the author's training, scientific interest and work in the field of emotional health (unlike similar parenting self-help authored by pediatricians, religious leaders and other peripheral "experts" on children and families).

I had expectations that the book would read like two other sociologist's texts that the touched on happiness and attitude (Stumbling on Happiness and Outliers). These books focused on the outcomes of attitude more than their development. They are reader-friendly assemblies of contemporary research. I looked for this book to be NurtureShock focusing solely on happiness issues. Which it wasn't.

It was much, much more.

Reading the introduction I took some notes that I keep by my bed and now glance at most mornings. Carter's concept of happiness is much more than the temporal mood I previously associated with the word. Additional facets like positive emotions about the past (gratitude, forgiveness, and appreciation), future emotions (optimism, faith, and confidence), and daily actions (love, kindness, and empathy) expanded my definition. My concept of happiness was binary (present or not present), it had no origins or supporting characteristics. I viewed joy as environmental and capricious (somewhat like the weather) rather than something cultivated by daily actions and patterns of small decisions.

Quoting Indian social worker and activist Baba Amte, Dr. Carter reminds "Happiness is a continuous creative activity." This idea would be my 6-word summary of the book's thesis, yet that is like calling Moby Dick "a book about a whale."

When I started the first chapter, the author's conversational style engaged me. The text exudes confidence and authority. However it didn't include the research citations that I am accustomed to in my favorite social science books. My stomach twisted, and I thought this promising book had degraded into a from-the-hip opinion on parenting. With nary a reference or footnote in sight, I told Jim that the book might be unfounded opinion.

I flipped toward the back expecting only an index, but found over twenty pages of detailed annotations (179 in total) and fifteen pages of bibliography all in a truly tiny print (I suspect they would occupy double the pages if printed in the same font as the text). Throughout the book, Carter is continuously engaging cognitive and behavioral science research, but the editorial approach is to keep that academic engagement from cluttering the basic recommendations.

Raising Happiness, though a book about children, took me on a journey of self-assessment. Like the first chapter "Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First" suggests, I realized I am no help to my children in developing skills that I do not understand. Much of the book made me consider my own approach to the world rather than the attitudes of my children. I guess most good parenting books could be defined as offering transformation to the reader first, then secondary effects for their children.

Each chapter covers one of Carter's recommendations:
  1. Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
  2. Build A Village
  3. Expect Effort and Enjoyment, Not Perfection
  4. Choose Gratitude, Forgiveness, and Optimism
  5. Raise Their Emotional Intelligence
  6. Form Happiness Habits
  7. Teach Self-Discipline
  8. Enjoy the Present Moment
  9. Rig Their Environment for Happiness
  10. Eat Dinner Together
While some of the recommendations might sound familiar (to the point of being trite), the book is a surprisingly good instructor on practical incremental steps to enacting difficult change. Chapter Four's subsection Practicing the Skills We Need for Forgiveness, Carter draws on the work of Stanford Forgiveness Project researcher Fred Luskin. She clearly translates Luskin's program into 6 steps to use with kids. As a person who sometimes nurtures grudges, I need the careful guidance of someone who understands how to forgive in a way that is beneficial to all parties.

For example:
Step 4 -Teach kids that they suffer when they demand things that life is not going to give them. They can hope for things, of course, and they can work hard to get what they want. But they cannot force things to happen that are outside of their control. When we expect something outside of our control and it doesn't happen, we feel hurt and wronged. Help kids practice letting go of the desire for things that they have no influence over, and redirect their energies toward things they do have control over.
Working as a college advisor, I regularly saw students dealing with uncontrollable forces. The students most likely to prevail were the ones who focused on the next step rather than ruminating over disappointments.

Jim is currently reading Raising Happiness, and it's really interesting to see him adopting some of the techniques with our kids.  I did the same thing when I was reading the book, but it's really illuminating to see the process as an outsider.  Tantrums have been a major issue with our preschooler.  With so many strong-willed people living in the same family, it's not surprising that our ideas come into conflict.  Jim and I have been frustrated by our inability to quell tantrums through constructive means.   We don't ever submit to the demands and often issued punishments, but the outbursts just didn't stop.  Jim has recently begun acknowledging our child's emotions at the beginning of conflict.  He empathizes with the child's feelings without condoning the emerging behavior.  This usually yields immediate positive results.  In our case, I think our child needs to know that we understand his position even if we don't agree with it.  When we simply addressed the inappropriate behavior without any acknowledgment, he would ratchet up his intensity so that we might hear his side.  He didn't understand that his message simply became noise (irritating noise) when he screamed unintelligibly (and why should he understand that with only a few years of linguistic experience)?  The act of empathizing makes me try to re-evaluate the situation, and it often softens my initial appraisal.  This single simple change in our behavior hasn't completely ended all outbursts, but it has shortened their duration greatly and has improved our overall communications as a family.

So many of the small steps in this book resonated and brought to mind people who I admire for their personal and professional successes. Each individual recommendation matched my experience and observations, but I was previously unable to assemble all those random parts into an organized and interpretable whole.

The book is so rich with ideas and suggestions that it lends itself to rereading at different ages and stages.  What leaps out to me today overshadows future areas of interest.  Once I have engaged the content that resonates with me now, I plan to return to the book to consider additional aspects and approaches.

Raising Happiness is a must read (and currently $16.32 at  And once you've read it, it will probably turn into a permanent addition to your home reference library.

Carter's excellent blog, Half Full, welcomes readers into an ongoing conversation.

***Baby Toolkit loves to read and rarely finds a parenting book we like so much as Raising Happiness.  We have no financial relationship with Christine Carter nor her publisher Ballantine Books.  We requested and received an advance copy of Raising Happiness ($24). A portion of the purchases made through our Amazon links helps fund Baby Toolkit's ongoing operating costs (thank you!).


adjunctmom said...

You know, when you briefly rec'd it on GoodReads, I bought it based on that brief rec. I haven't finished reading it (big shocker, I know), but I love what I've read and it lines up well with my personal parenting bible: Simplicity Parenting.

And I think Ranger and Ben are connected somehow -- those tantrums that Ben throws are spectacular and scary.

adrienne said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I was still working on this review when I posted to GoodReads. This post has been 5/6ths finished for almost a month (but what a month it's been!).

I'll check out Simplicity Parenting soon.

Tantrums seem to be contagious at our house. If one kid has one, the other is soon to follow.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the this review - the book sounds very interesting! I've just requested it at our library so hopefully I'll get to read it soon. Maybe it will help with my 5-year-old... here's crossing my fingers!

Francie said...

Book sounds great, and I'm glad you have been spending time being nourished & encouraged with it!
Missed you today and hoped you were having a grrreat time with Ranger. See you Thursday, I hope!

Asha {Parent Hacks} said...

Wow. I've read the blog, but your review will have me clicking straight over to our library website to check this book out.

We have had the same experience with escalating tantrums, and empathizing is the ONLY way ratchet them down. It took us a very long time to realize that our son was frightened by his own exploding temper, so when we added fuel to the fire it just terrified (and shamed) him even more. Of course it didn't look or sound like to an outsider it may seem like we were reinforcing his behavior. But we now know that's exactly what it was.

Now that we have this basis of trust built up with him (and he's older), he can describe what's going on more clearly.

Thank you for this fantastic review.