What makes you happy? Once, we were famously told the secret to happiness was a well-known brand of cigar. Before we all found out smoking can kill us, that is. Holidays, hugs, a good book, a cold beer or the cold side of the pillow - we’re all different and so different things will float our boat.
Whatever makes us happy though, we can probably agree that happiness itself is a pretty nice feeling. Surely most of us would take feeling happier over feeling angrier any day of the week? And we’d probably take the same for any children in our care too. So, how can we play our part in raising happy kids? How can we help them to truly know what happiness is?
We may not know the children in our care for long or we may know them for years, but any time is time enough to have a positive impact on their lives. There’s everything to play for – so what exactly makes children happy? The obvious answer could well be a big bowl of sweets, the latest smartphone or a day uninterrupted on the X-Box. But there’s a difference between instant gratification and long-term happiness, sorry X-Box.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously proposed a hierarchy of needs, which suggested that our more basic needs must be satisfied before we can advance to eventually achieve self-actualization, or ‘peak happiness’. In real life our needs don’t move neatly from one level to another, but broadly speaking, Maslow makes a good point. After all, no child can be gloriously happy if they are hungry or in danger. Providing a safe space where they are well looked after is the first step in helping a child to be happy.
Moving a little deeper, last year the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed its findings from an investigation which had asked children themselves what they thought made a happy life for a child. It turns out they had some really mature responses and the ONS were able to identify six main themes - positive relationships, safe spaces and things to do, health and well-being, skills and schools, basic needs and a happy future.
Reassuringly, these tie-in really well with what many experts suggest we do to foster long-term happiness in our children. In her book Raising Happiness, sociologist Christine Carter recommends (among other things) teaching the skills needed for relationship-building, responsibility, optimism and emotional intelligence. She also highlights the value of experiences over material items, including the experience of risk-taking. This list may sound daunting, especially if a child in your care has extra issues to deal with, but helping them even a little in these areas will enable them to live a better life, whatever comes their way. Combined with the safe, stable home environment and caring relationship you are already giving them, you’ll be on to a winner.
We know happiness in cared-for children will not change overnight, but with care and determination, it at least has a chance to flourish. Remember, we’re always here to answer any questions you have – talking makes us happy. We’d also love to hear from you if you’re thinking of beginning a fostering journey. After all, helping a child to be happier simply starts with a spare room...