Teaching Happiness — Positive Emotions Are Skills to Be Learned

An Interview with Christine Carter, PhD

Christine Carter, PhD, will be giving a keynote address at the 2012 ACA National Conference. Carter is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. In an interview with Camping Magazine, Carter explains why happiness is integral to success and how we can promote positive emotions in campers.

The basic premise of Raising Happiness is that happiness is a skill we can teach kids. Why is happiness so important?

Happiness is one of those things that most people think of as being “fluffy” or just nice to have — something that will come from other ends, like success. Parents in particular really focus on helping their kids achieve things that they hope will bring success.

What I want people to realize is that happiness is not fluffy — it’s in fact very functional. Positive emotions function in our brains and bodies in a way that helps us fulfill our potential. We know that, more often than not, happiness actually precedes success. When our brains are positive and we’re experiencing positive emotions, we’re much more creative, better at problem solving, and our perception is more open — making us more able to learn. The ways that positive emotions and happiness (I use the terms interchangeably) function leads us to be more successful in our endeavors.

Physiologically, all emotions have an effect on our body and on our brain chemistry. We tend to be much more in touch with how anger changes our physiological response. When we get angry, we know it — we sweat, our heart rate might go up, and it’s pretty widely acknowledged that anger is damaging to our cardiovascular and immune systems.

People often don’t realize that the reverse is actually true for happiness. The physiological response of happiness is really important in today’s day and age — especially for kids — because the world that we live in is so stressful. Happiness “puts the brakes” on that stress response. Say you are anxious and you’re heart rate goes up. If you have a good laugh, feelings of gratitude, or feelings of hope — any sort of positive emotions — generally speaking, your heart rate will drop. Positive emotions even boost your immune system a little bit. Basically, in simple terms, positive emotions reverse the negative effects of stress and negative emotions.

What is the role of relationships in making us happy? Are there ways that camp directors can use relationships with role models and peers to instill happiness in kids?

Absolutely. There’s a lot here that I think camp can do to further kids’ happiness through their relationships and their community. The first thing to know is that a person’s happiness is best predicted by the breadth and the depth of their social connections — their ties to other people. Camp gives kids a wonderfully rich opportunity to extend both the breadth and depth of their relationships.

Often times, camp opens kids to an entirely new community of people. Within the span of a week or two, kids can rapidly expand the number of ties and relationships they have. Not just with their peers, but also with younger kids, counselors, and older role models. All of those relationships are important.

Another wonderful thing about camp is that it presents a great opportunity to form deep relationships quickly. The nature of the experience is bonding. Anything that camp directors can do to increase the depth of those relationships — and help those relationships continue beyond just the time that kids are at camp — will increase the odds of kids being happy.

Camp is also a great opportunity for kids to work on their social skills. There’s a lot of social and emotional learning that can take place at camp. And that will be the foundation for their relationships going forward — as well as their happiness.

What are some ways that we can help kids develop things like empathy, kindness, and generosity while they’re at camp?

We can work with them directly on these things. Promoting a culture that values empathy, compassion, generosity, and the expression of gratitude — and talking about these things — is really important. Camp directors and parents need to acknowledge that many of these things are skills that need to be taught and practiced.

You may have a kid who seems entitled and “bratty” about things. But consider the possibility that he or she has never been taught how to express gratitude. Or he or she has never practiced scanning the environment for things for which to feel grateful. The child might not be comfortable doing that. It could be like speaking an entirely different language for him or her.

So just acknowledge that these are things that can be taught directly, that they need to be practiced, and that they’re inherently rewarding in and of themselves. Once kids feel a deep sense of gratitude or awe, they’re going to be searching for that experience again. They’re going to naturally move toward it. It’s going to be something that they’ll want to learn to practice.

We are really good as a culture at thinking of skills that we want our kids to have. We send our kids to camp to get better at tennis or ride a horse, for example. But I want parents and camp directors to be thinking about the emotional skills kids can learn as well. Camp can involve gratitude practice. Campers can be encouraged to think compassionately toward other campers. There can be time dedicated during the day to just evoking awe or inspiration with a moment in nature — an important skill for kids’ lifelong happiness.

What advice do you have for camp staff on helping children recover from failure?

This generation of kids isn’t allowed to fail very often, or even just get “B+”s. One of the great opportunities of camp is that it gives kids the opportunity to be uncomfortable, take risks, make mistakes, and fall down — and there isn’t necessarily anyone there to cover for their mistakes.

Parents are shocked when they hear me say I think it’s a real advantage for kids to make a mistake and then feel really uncomfortable about it. We don’t like to see our kids in pain! And it’s not that I like to see my children in pain any more than anybody else — I hate it! But it is really important for our kids to learn to tolerate discomfort. If they become unwilling to take risks. When that happens, you get a brittle generation of children who aren’t challenging themselves. They’re often bored, and they’re not growing or meeting their potential.

Camps can help educate parents that it is okay for kids to be homesick or really frightened to try a new activity. But we’re not talking about trauma — of course, traumatizing children is not okay. We’re talking about mild discomfort. When we let kids experience that mild discomfort, they learn to think that they can handle it and that it’s not so bad. They become willing to face difficulty — which their life will be full of, no matter how much we try to shelter them from it. They gain the skills and the coping mechanisms that they’re going to need to be more resilient individuals.

I think it’s really important for camp counselors to acknowledge what children are going through — that it’s totally okay to be uncomfortable; it’s totally okay to be frightened. A natural response to coaching a kid through a new experience is to say, “You’re not afraid! You just did this yesterday. You’re fine.” We tell them that they’re not feeling what they really are. And that’s not helpful. It will prolong the pain. Instead, we should say, “It’s okay that you’re homesick. Lots of people get homesick. How does it feel?” Give them the time and the space to not resist what they’re feeling.

Resistance sometimes amplifies negative feelings. When we do that, we sometimes inadvertently make them bigger. We need to let kids lean into uncomfortable feelings by saying, “How are you feeling? Where do you feel the sadness? Do you feel like you’re going to cry?” That’s the way the negative feelings will dissipate. Oftentimes kids will be able to identify the shape of the feeling, the color of the feeling, and where in the body it is. A lot of kids become quite articulate about it once you’ve put them in touch with that feeling of discomfort. Which, in the end, enables them to move on — and you can help them with all the fun distractions at camp.

Lots of times, kids need help distracting themselves from the negative feelings they’ve identified. Sometimes they can snowball and get out of control. But the first step is allowing kids to accept how they are feeling, which will ultimately make them feel more resilient. It’s fine to help distract kids from negative feelings once they are in touch with them.

What are your experiences with camp?

I feel grateful that my kids have had the experience of going to camp, and I know firsthand about the discomfort of going to camp for the first time that many feel. My oldest daughter was so nervous about camp that it literally made her sick before she left. Sending her off was not easy for either of us, but it was a profoundly positive experience.

I’m really grateful that camps exist and that they are so supportive of the social/ emotional development of kids. I feel there is a really natural fit between the concepts that I teach in Raising Happiness and my online parenting classes and what camps can teach to kids.

Camp Activities for Promoting Gratitude in Campers

Gratitude is a positive emotion about the past, and it’s ver y strongly associated with happiness. There is a positive cascade effect when kids feel grateful: they tend to sleep better, have more energy during the day, and peers perceive them as being more emotionally supportive. Finding time to practice gratitude can be done in an activity that is unique to your camp. Here are some ideas:

  • Counting blessings and then expressing them in groups
  • Having a specific tree where kids hang handwritten notes of what they’re grateful for
  • Sharing gratitude for one simple thing at mealtime with their cabin
  • Performing a camp fire ceremony where campers share things they are grateful for
  • Having campers take photographs of things they appreciate
  • Forming groups of campers to create wall art depicting something they are grateful for

Anything goes. The most important thing is that kids get time to deliberately practice being grateful.

Originally published in the 2012 January/February Camping Magazine.

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