Families can find happiness

Children raised in families which eat meals together do better on a range of measures from less drug use to greater contentment.

Children raised in families which eat meals together do better on a range of measures from less drug use to greater contentment.

November 18, 2013

Psychiatrist Tim Lau has a prescription for happiness based on what he has learned from his patients, his wife and his six children.

"Happiness is contagious," said Lau in a recent lecture in Ottawa. "Happier children come from happy parents." Happiness is not a matter of genetics, but something in the home.

Everyone is searching for happiness, yet happiness remains hard to find, he said in a talk sponsored by the Neeje Association for Women and Family.

Depression is a leading cause of disability, with 10 times as many people suffering from major depression now as did in 1945, he said. "We don't know what we're looking for, and we don't know what will make us happy."

People often confuse happiness with pleasure, but if you aim for pleasure, your aim is frustrated. In the ancient philosophers, Lau found clues about the nature of happiness. The ancients realized "happiness is a matter of the soul," and is based on character and virtue.

Dr. Tim Lau

Dr. Tim Lau

Lau's prescription for fostering happiness in the family focuses on 10 areas.

  1. Don't expect money to buy happiness, he said. While the average income is going up, the number of happy people is not. Too many families are trying to impress others with designer clothes, electronic gadgets and extravagant birthday parties, he said. People are buying bigger houses but not spending much time living in them.
  2. Having too many options can "make us miserable," he said. Happiness declines if you have more choices; money can lead to higher expectations.
  3. We need to live with integrity, he said. That means "being consistent and whole," and morally integrated. "Be an example," he said.
  4. Parental unity is important, he said. "We don't want kids to have two voices in their head," he said. Discipline and saying "no" are important. "When children are younger, we need to simplify their choices," he said. "When you set a limit, do not bargain for compliance with your children."
  5. Lau recommended an authoritative parenting style that puts limits on children's behaviour, but is warmly engaged in their lives. Authoritative parents are "highly responsive to their children but expect or demand things of their children," he said.
  6. "As parents we have to help our kids choose a good life," he said. "It takes effort."

Accept reality

  1. Accept the things you cannot change. It's hard to let go of the illusion of control, he said. We did not choose our mother and father. Within families, there are often mismatches of temperament. "You don't know what you are going to get with what child," he said. "Accept reality for what it is." At the same time, accepting reality does not mean one cannot improve one's parenting, he said. "Avoid fatalism."
  2. Have the courage to change the things you can. Lau said he often uses the Serenity Prayer with his patients: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference." One thing we can control is the response to what happens to us, he said, noting that Victor Frankl found that even in a Nazi death camp, one could choose the attitude towards one's suffering.

Learn to Resolve conflicts

  1. Be open to change. "Keep in mind we are often wrong," Lau said. Many people have a "false sense of self-esteem." A study shows that 96 per cent of children's programming includes verbal putdowns. "Kids are not learning good behaviour. They are learning to be manipulative and bossy."
  2. "We have to teach our kids how to resolve conflicts," he said. Current attempts to combat bullying ban conflict rather than correct bullying behaviour.
  3. Strive for balance and moderation, and help your children find it. Set goals and live more simply, he said, advising parents to work less and spend more time with their family. Improve your marriage and that will improve your parenting, he said. "Focus on your spouse."
  4. Lau also warned against unrestricted electronic media use. Children are watching TV online and sending texts to the point of inducing anxiety or repetitive stress injury. Excess TV-watching leads to attention problems, he said. Excessive Facebook use and texting has "led to lower life satisfaction."
  5. Instead, Lau encouraged face-to-face interaction, reading books in a search for wisdom, and exercising both body and spirit.
  6. Eat family meals together, he urged. Teenagers who eat common family dinners have better outcomes on a range of measures, from less drug use to less early sexual activity and more emotional contentment.

Prayer and meditation

  1. Find a reason for the things you do, Lau said. He encouraged prayer and meditation to help people be grounded in the midst of life's noise. "People who are spiritually committed are happier and less stressed."
  2. Be mindful of the present. "Every day is a gift," he said. "Each day is a new day." Depressed patients tend to focus on the past; those who are anxious focus on the future. "Focus on the here and now," he said. Cultivate gratitude; help kids to count their blessings. "We are unhappy when our eyeballs are turned inwards," he said.
  3. Be open to love. "Make strong personal relationships a priority," he said.