In our recent online radio show, Christine Carter, Ph.D.,the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and Samantha Ettus discussed how making small, mindful changes can lead to big shifts in happiness.
One of the biggest keys to happiness, says Dr. Carter, is acknowledging all emotions—whether yours, your partner’s, your child’s or your coworker’s, because when you numb the difficult emotions, you set yourself to numb all your emotions, including profound joy, gratitude or compassion.
Dr. Carter shared some tips to employ mindfulness to create balance and increase happiness:
- Be aware of ratio of your positive to negative emotions. Either bring more positive, or eliminate more negative.
- Instead of just thinking about happiness in the present, employ gratitude to review happiness in the past.
- Frustrated, overwhelmed with someone at home or at work? Acknowledge what you feel, and allow others to acknowledge what they feel.
- In relationships, prescribe a protocol so each person can articulate what they are feeling without judgement.
- As a parent, take a moment to validate child’s emotions before you try to manage them.
“All people are capable of change,” says Dr. Carter. “It’s the motivation for change that’s really important.”
Click the link below to listen to the full 30-minute call .
About Dr. Carter: Best known for her weekly Happiness Tips, Christine Carter, Ph.D., draws on psychology, sociology, and neuroscience, and uses her own chaotic and often hilarious real-world adventures to demonstrate happiness do’s and don’ts in action. Dr. Carter is the author of RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. She has helped thousands of people find more joy in their lives through her books, online classes, coaching, and speaking engagements. She teaches happiness classes online throughout the year to a global audience on her website www.christinecarter.com.
About Samantha Ettus: Samantha is the leading lifestyle and parenting expert for working women. Ettus has coached thousands of women, from celebrities, to entrepreneurs, top CEO’s and professional athletes. Ettus is a best-selling author of four Random House books and a contributor to Forbes and Disney’s parenting site, Babble. She hosts a nationally syndicated radio show for working moms and has interviewed countless luminaries from Al Roker to Bethenny Frankel and Mary J. Blige. Ettus has made hundreds of local and national TV appearances and is a sought after speaker at corporations, conferences and colleges. Ettus earned her B.A. and M.B.A. from Harvard University. @SAMANTHAETTUS
CONFERENCE FOR WOMEN
Moderator: Samantha Ettus
Guest: Christine Carter, Ph.D.
SAMANTHA ETTUS: Hello, and welcome to the Conference for Women’s radio show. Today we are thrilled to have with us Christine Carter for our March Office Hours. Christine is a happiness expert and the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.
Most of you know me by now as your host, Samantha Ettus, and I talk about lifestyle management issues, work/life management issues. So I’m really excited to talk to Christine about some of the things that I see with my clients, and just about tips and things that we can all learn from, both on a daily basis and on a more global sort of mindfulness level.
So Christine, welcome to the show.
CHRISTINE CARTER: Thank you so much for having me.
SE: So Christine, share with us a little bit about your background and how this became your field.
CC: How I became a happiness expert? Well, you know, I was a rather overachieving, perfectionistic type of a person, Type A person for most of my life. And for all of the listeners who are kind of perfectionistic, they know that perfectionism is, in many ways, a particular form of unhappiness, right? It causes a lot of anxiety. I spent a lot of my energy worrying about, you know, not being perfect and fearing failure or disappointing myself or somebody else, you know, I — but I did really well. And so there was always this little conflict in me about well, it’s working, from an achievement standpoint, but I just always wasn’t really all that happy.
And then I got pregnant, and being a perfectionist, I wanted to raise my children perfectly. And to me, that meant, you know, I needed to figure out how to help them create happier lives than the one I had created for myself, really. I kind of knew — I come from a long line of very anxious mothers and —
SE: That’s a great way to describe it. I understand, yes.
CC: I had the original helicopter mother, and it really worked out for me, in my ways, right? My mom did everything to sort of rig my life so that I always got the best teacher, I went to all the best schools, I had — she sort of rigged my life so that I could be this overachiever, right? And so when I got pregnant, I thought, okay. Am I going to continue this tradition or am I going to rig my kids’ lives for happiness? And being an overachiever, I then decided to get my Ph.D. and study the sociology of happiness so that I could best figure out how — what skills I needed to teach my kids so they wouldn’t be quite so anxious and that they could find more profound joy.
SE: What you just said is so interesting, because it’s not that you are not rigging, it’s that instead of rigging for achievement you are rigging for happiness; is that right?
CC: That was my goal. And the funny thing about that is that, you know, I kind of went into it thinking I’m going to give up the achievement piece because I have that and I’m not happy. And what I learned is that happiness just fuels people’s success. That, you know, I have only become — I am far more successful than I ever was when I was anxious, right?
So positive emotions are really functional. They — so when we are driven by passion and confidence and positive things rather than fear of failure or fear of disappointing people, we’re much more creative, we’re more innovative, we’re more verbally fluent. We have a whole rich science around all the amazing things that happen to our brain on positivity, right, when we are experiencing happiness or other positive emotions. So yes, I went into it thinking I was giving up the achievement piece of it and choosing happiness, and that it was a completely different skill set.
SE: I think that a lot of people who are listening right now are saying, okay. Well, I want to give up my anxiety, too, and this sounds like a dreamy life that Christine is describing. But how did that happen for you? Did you completely give up your anxiety and just lead this super positive, happy life, or was it more of a gradual thing and —
CC: Well, it wasn’t gradual. Actually, it was a pretty — there were — along of the lines, there were some pretty dramatic shifts for me, and a lot of it was shifting my habits. So that part of it is — could probably — to an outsider would be seen as a fairly gradual. But I — and all change is gradual to a certain extent, but also there were some sort of core epiphany kind of moments where as I was studying happiness, I realized, oh, if I shift this, that you tweak these little, tiny things you see these big shifts in your life.
So is it all like sunshine and cheerfulness and happiness in my world? No. Not at all. And I don’t even want that, right? I’m not even looking for that. One of the big shifts for me was learning to become comfortable with a certain level of discomfort, right, to see that a lot of the difficult emotions can be very stabilizing, actually.
SE: So when was — in your family, can you sort of share with me the last time that you experienced a difficult emotion and how you handled it?
CC: Oh, my gosh, I experience them all the time. So I will answer that question, but what — the thing about it, the key about it is that I’m experiencing the difficult emotions. So even just like I’ve been going from meeting to meeting today, right, or call to call, and so I woke up this morning and looked at my calendar and it was like — you know that sense of urgency you get when you realize you have got a lot going on?
CC: So there that was. And you know, if you are like me, that doesn’t really work very well in the world of children, right? So it’s like oh, my God, I’ve got to get you guys out the door. This is like that sort of urgency that happens at breakfast time. So that’s the last sort of difficult emotion.
And for me, it’s all about feeling what you feel, right? So I was able to sort of reconnect to my breath and just — which is how I connect back to being really present to what it is. And I was able — I’m able to articulate it, to be able to say, whew, I just got this, like, huge rush of this feeling like I’ve got a lot going on today and there’s not enough time between these meetings for me to collect my thoughts. And all these worries just came up for me and I feel that right in the middle of my chest. And it’s sort of — I mean, I actually am able to objectify it a little bit, and because I have children, I do it out loud a lot of times. I mean, I —
SE: I was just going to ask you that. Do you share these emotions with your kids? Because I think that’s often a struggle. As a parent, I wonder, how much do you let your kids in and how much do you protect them from big emotions?
CC: Well, I think that’s a personal choice, but for me, I’m always modeling how to deal with emotions. And I’m very emotional, and one of my kids is also extremely emotional. So it started as me sort of like, oh, this is a teaching moment, right? I’m going to model what I’m doing so I’m going to do it out loud. But because I’m a pretty extroverted person and I’m very verbal and very emotional, it actually worked better for me. So even if my children aren’t around, I have to sort of experience these difficult emotions as though I’m teaching somebody else about them. It just helps me be really present to them, you know, objectify them.
I started off working with kids in this way saying, you know, okay, so I see that you feel sad. You know, where in your body does the sadness live? Does it have a color? Does it have a texture? But I do that with myself now because it really helps me lean into the emotion, and that is — I mean, this is sort of one of the biggest tickets to happiness, I think.
And let me — can I take a minute to explain why I think really letting yourself feel difficult emotions leads to happiness?
SE: Yes. Yes. Give us a Christmas version.
CC: The Christmas version of it. Because I think in our society, we’re really good at numbing difficult emotions. We have — you know, we check our email incessantly or spend a lot of time on Facebook, or we eat of the entire pan of brownies, or we — all the things that we do to numb, to not feel. My personal favorite is actually just being really busy, right? You can’t really feel a whole lot if you just don’t ever slow down.
CC: And the problem with that, as it relates to happiness, is when you numb out the difficult things, you numb all of your emotions. So to me, part of being happy in life is being able to feel profound joy or gratitude or compassion or love. You just can’t really feel those things if you’re numbing out your emotions —
SE: If you are roughing, right. Exactly.
CC: — if you are engaging in anything that’s sort of numbing.
So that’s kind of effective for dealing with anxiety, in some ways. I mean, it doesn’t really deal with it, but it certainly masks it effectively. But you can’t selectively numb your emotions, right? You numb it all. So anyway, no, it’s not all happiness and sunshine. But you know, the negative moments don’t last as long as they used to, right? I used to be anxious kind of all the time.
SE: Good way to put it.
So tell us about — someone who is listening right now, what are some daily changes they can make starting tonight or tomorrow that would change their life and just make their life happier and better?
CC: Okay. Well, I’ve got a lot of happiness tips. I want to frame them — I think that there are sort of two things we can do to change our lives, to make our lives happier and better. And the thing about it is that we need to be really aware of our ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions. So I’m going to say more about that, but the two things that we can do are either bring more positive emotions into our lives or reduce unnecessary negative emotions. So I will speak to both of those things, but this ratio is really important.
So about 17 percent of the population researchers consider to be flourishing. And a person who is flourishing is — they are happy, but they are also much more productive, they are more creative, they are better decision makers. They come up with more solutions to difficult problems, particularly problems that require insight. I could go on and on. Flourishing people have really got what we all need to make it in this sort of busy world, but only 17 percent of the people have it.
And the key difference between somebody who is flourishing and somebody who is not is their ratio of positive to negative emotions. So typically they have three or more positive emotions to one negative emotion. So the key thing is that it’s a ratio, right? It’s not that we don’t have negative emotions, it’s that we have more positive emotions in proportion. So when we think about happiness, a lot of the times we confuse it with gratification and we’re like, oh, no, I need to have more positive emotions. I need to have more happiness. I’m going to go get that cute pair of shoes, right —
CC: — or I’m going to have a really delicious meal or these things that bring short-term happiness.
And those things are great. They are different, though, than our really powerful positive emotions. So instead of just thinking about happiness as a positive emotion that takes place in the present, we also need to think about positive emotions that take place in the past like gratitude. My number one instant happiness booster has to do with bringing more gratitude into our lives.
SE: And how do you do that?
CC: It’s not any harder than simply counting your blessings, but finding a way to do it that is routine, right?
SE: So on a daily basis you are sort of including it. Just like you brush your teeth, you count your blessings?
CC: Yes. Yes. So finding something that you feel grateful for and then letting yourself really feel it. So there’s definitely not one size fits all with this. Different people — some people like to journal. I’m not a big journaler. Some people have a gratitude buddy that they text something every day. The key thing is that you do it, but that you do it in a way that works for you and that you challenge yourself to think of something novel every single day.
So this is not complicated. In our family he would do it at dinnertime. We go around the table and we say what we’re grateful for. It’s enormously tempting to always be grateful for the food or the person who made the food because we’re at dinner or whatever. So the challenge is in, 365 days a year, coming up with new things. And what this does is it’s a tiny, 30-second practice that actually shifts your lens on the world.
Our brain is, you know, a filter. Basically we take in very little of the input in our world, and it decides what to filter out based on what you tell it is relevant. So if you make it a practice to constantly hunt down the things that you feel are gifts in your world, that you feel thankful for or the things that you appreciate, the people that you appreciate, the tiny, little things here and there or the big global things and then express those, it sends a very clear signal to your brain that you’re much more interested in the good things in your life than you are in the hassles.
SE: In my family we do highlights and lowlights every day, but I almost think we should be replacing it because thinking of a lowlight is almost a negative thing to think about, or how do you feel about that?
CC: So think in terms of ratios. So we do highs and lows, too, or we do high, low, buffalo which the buffalo is just something completely random but it has to be positive. So my kids understand the whole idea of a ratio, and that I want to hear what didn’t go well in their lives.
I think that’s particularly important for families and for relationships, because you don’t want to send a message that you expect there to only be positive things. We want to hear about their challenges, but we keep that — so when we do high, low, buffalo, we keep the ratio 3 to 1. So the high is a high, and that’s positive. The low is a low, but then we look for the silver lining. So we hear what the low was, and then we look, was there an opportunity in that? Was there a gift? Was there — anything good come out of it? Did you learn anything?
Sometimes it’s a stretch, right, but it’s actually really good practice in that life is difficult all the time, but actually the people who have the most meaning and the most fulfillment also tend to have the most difficulty. So just knowing that, right, so life was difficult. Good. Because easy lives can be really meaningless, right? And meaninglessness is — why live, right? So it changes that low from, like, something bad that happened that was probably somebody else’s fault because they suck, right — kids, particularly teenagers, can really get into that blaming sort of thing — to something difficult happened, right?
SE: So tell me — okay. So a lot of this, a lot of people listening right now probably think, well, some of it is biology. You know, my sister woke up every day super happy and I woke up sad, or whatever it might be. You know, I have three kids. One of our kids just wakes up happy every day. She wakes up from a nap in the car and says, that was a great nap. And you’re like, I wish I could take credit for that, that’s like a dreamy personality, but I can’t. It’s just the way she is. And then I have another child who wakes up every day disgruntled about something. So you have to think, okay. They are being raised the exact same way but one is always happy waking up and one is always kind of grumpy waking up. How do you handle that?
CC: Well, and they are even genetically sort of similar so it’s even more mystifying, right? But anyone with more than one kid knows that there’s definitely a genetic component to this. So I like to think about this approach to leading a happy life or creating a meaningful life as being like learning a language, right? So some people pick up new languages super easily, right? They just — you just teach them a few words and they run with it. Other people have to make flashcards, need constant reminders, they might need tutoring.
So people have different abilities in this and just like that, people have different abilities in terms of the skills that we need to lead a happy life. It’s not just about mood, it’s about a whole skill set surround creating habits and ways of thinking that lead to happiness. And so yes, big genetic differences. When it comes to positive emotions, we know that genetics are responsible for about half of it. That actually leaves quite a lot, right?
SE: Right. Right.
CC: So the other half is all about — people say environment. I think it’s more important to think about habits, right, and skills than that. So —
SE: Because that’s more proactive, and environment is just saying like it will just happen, that they are going to be suddenly —
CC: Right. It’s like where you were raised, as though it’s predetermined what skills you will learn based on that. And it’s not, necessarily. I think that there’s a really active component of that. But regardless, the kid who wakes up happy and the kid who wakes up grouchy, they still need to both be taught the basic grammar and they still need to practice in order to become fluent. It’s just about the amount of practice, really.
So you talk a lot about emotion coaching children. I imagine it’s also the same as emotion coaching an employee, for example.
CC: Oh, yeah.
SE: What does emotion coaching look like? Take us through a typical example and how you would coach someone through that.
CC: Well, I think that the key thing is what we have already been talking about except for it’s in relation to other people instead of yourself. It’s to allow people to feel what they are feeling, right? So we know that when somebody is stressed, if you have a really stressed out employee and she tries to mask her stress, or if she’s feeling something negative and she tries to mask it, if you tell her to control her emotions, or if she’s working in an environment in which she feels the need to control her emotions, we actually know that those negative emotions are going to get much bigger in terms of the physiological response to them.
So you can be feeling stressed, walk into an environment and have to face a co-worker or a manager, and if you’re able to say, I feel really overwhelmed by this right now and here’s what I’m doing, blah, blah, blah, blah, to just acknowledge what you feel, which is not to ruminate or make it bigger or turn it into a big drama, but just to acknowledge how you are actually feeling, then the physiological symptoms that come with negative emotion or with that stress, they are just going to diminish, right? So emotion coaching, at its heart, is about allowing people to feel what it is that they feel in a given moment, and that it’s a way of saying, all emotions are okay, right?
CC: We acknowledge that emotions are a part of being human. As much as we sometimes want our employees to be computers or to act like computers, none of them are. Our children are certainly not. You know, we’re much more accepting of emotion in childhood, that it’s a part of it all. And in fact, growing up is about learning to regulate your emotions. But being able to regulate your emotions is not the same thing as not having emotions at all.
SE: Now, let’s go to partners. So for those in the audience who share their life with another person, and you have two totally styles, you were raised totally differently, how do two partners help each other live a happy life if they have completely different styles, and maybe one is super emotional and one is more of a stiff upper lip, suck it up kind of attitude?
CC: I think a lot of that is agreeing on behaviors, right? So you can’t tell somebody how to feel or what to feel something. And you know, I think having a basic agreement, all emotions are okay but all behaviors in response to those emotions aren’t, necessarily. So we can agree on how we will behave when we feel this way or when one of us is real emotional or whatever. We tend to conflate the emotion with the behavior or the action that we take when we’re feeling something difficult.
Maybe it would help if you gave me an example and I can sort of work it out.
SE: I coach a lot of families and a lot of couples, and what I often see; for example, I often coach people who come to me and say I do 90 percent of the work at home but we each have full-time jobs and kids. How do I change this behavior in my spouse? But then what I end up uncovering is that there’s a sort of a deeper thing which is he might be upset with his wife for being so emotional, is what he calls it, and she’s upset with him for not being engaged enough. And I just sort of — that’s a gender stereotype, but that kind of scenario comes up a lot.
CC: Yeah. I can imagine. It comes up a lot in the people that I coach as well. And that’s a great place to agree to certain behaviors. So if he’s upset that she’s too emotional, or she’s upset that he’s not engaged when she is feeling something difficult, then you sort of prescribe a protocol.
Okay. So she needs to feel heard, right?
CC: So you need to be able to articulate what she’s feeling without judgment, right, she’s feeling what she’s feeling, and then agree that — to whatever behavior is going to work, right, for this whole thing. I understand you think I’m too emotional. That’s just totally invalidating the basics of emotion coaching. I mean, you never would want to do that, even around kids if you are just teaching them. The basic — the first step of emotion coaching anybody is to accept, is to validate the emotions, right? Emotions just get bigger when they are not validated, right?
SE: You know, it’s so true. And I see this happen with kids all the time.
This is another question for you which is that I often see parents handling their kids’ tantrums in a way that breaks my heart a little bit, because you see parents saying to their kids, just stop crying. And they will yell at them, stop crying. And it breaks your heart because that’s a kid’s way of emoting, and there’s obviously something going on there.
SE: So if a parent comes to you and says my kid is having a tantrum, what is the best way to handle that?
CC: Yeah. Another thing that I see all the time is parents saying, you’re not afraid, right, or —
SE: Or they fall and they say, you’re fine. You’re fine.
CC: Yeah. You’re fine, and clearly the kid is not fine, right? Or like maybe they weren’t afraid yesterday, but they are clearly afraid today.
SE: Right. Right.
CC: So once again, I think the most important thing to do, I mean, it’s to have a little moment of mindfulness for yourself as a parent, right? So it’s a difficult situation and you want it to stop, right? So just taking a deep breath and saying this is really difficult to have my kid screaming their head off in public and I really want her to stop. However, the most — the just-stop-it method rarely works, right? You can sometimes, with some kids, instill enough fear in them of your response, that that sort of just-stop-it method will work, but mostly —
SE: But that’s not what you want, right? That’s not what you are advocating.
CC: No. No. I’m saying —
SE: I just want to make sure for all the listeners.
CC: No. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. I’m saying that’s usually what we do. That’s our instinct, as parents, it’s not a good one —
SE: Right. Okay.
CC: — to just be, like, stop. Stop crying, right?
CC: So what we need to know, what’s much more effective than the just-stop-it method is to validate whatever feelings are there. Because once kids are allowed to really feel whatever is coming up for them, once it’s all of a sudden okay that they are afraid, then they don’t feel the need to express it so much. Now, this is a little different. This is more true with older children. You know, once a two- or three-year-old is in the full tantrum, that’s like a neurological effect, more like a seizure, and they are not hearing anything you say anyway, right?
CC: So that aside, what I’m really talking about is if you have a kid who’s crying and afraid, it’s much more effective to say, I can see that you are afraid. I can remember when I was your age and in a similar situation. I was afraid, too. Here’s what I did. Do you think that might work for you, right? So to have a — to validate what they are feeling. To offer some empathy so that they feel heard and they feel understood, and then you can start looking for solutions.
SE: Sure. So you are more powerful as a parent when you’re empathetic because then there’s a trust.
CC: Exactly. Kids can actually listen.
CC: They can say, oh, here is somebody who understands what I’m going through.
CC: I can stop making so much noise about what I’m going through in order to be heard.
SE: I love that. That’s exactly, exactly right. That’s wonderful advice.
Now, we have all worked with that person who is in the office and they are the kind of person that says, of course it would rain on my birthday, right?
SE: They are always complaining about something. And if you’ve ever run a company, you obviously see that even one person like that can kind of spoil the bunch —
SE: — because one negative person can take down a culture. Is that person just someone you should let go or is that person someone you can change? I mean, is that negative person in your life someone that is changeable, or once they become an adult is it pretty much their habits are formed?
CC: No. Most people are very changeable. And changeable is probably not the right word. All people are capable of change. Whether or not they are motivated to change is a whole other thing. But Dan Siegel who is a neuroscientist at UCLA is doing really interesting work with men in their 90s, and he’s showing how they can change their emotional habits with their spouses. So that is really teaching old dogs new tricks, right?
SE: Wow, that’s wild.
CC: It gives me such hope, right? So I see change is possible with anyone. It’s the motivation for change, though, that is really important. So we all know, you know, we’re all adults, and we can probably all think of really major things we have changed in our lives. I have gone from being an extremely anxious, Type A, overachieving perfectionist to being somebody who is pretty loose, in a lot of ways, and very happy, right? I’m sure I’ll always be prone to some anxiety, but for the most part I am not the nervous person that I once was and that is because I was really motivated to change, right? I just wanted to be happier and I learned what that would take. So thinking about all these things as skills, complaining and negativity for most people is a habit, right?
SE: Right. Right.
CC: It’s just a bad habit. It can make them be —
SE: So as long as they are motivated to break that bad habit, then they are —
SE: Wonderful. Well, Christine, unfortunately we are out of time, but thank you so much. This has been so helpful and so terrific. And everyone can find more of Christine at christinecarter.com, and her Twitter handle is @raisinghappines without the S on the end, so only one S, @raisinghappines. Once again, she’s at christinecarter.com. Christine, thank you so much for joining us.
CC: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
SE: And for those of you who are our Office Hours listeners, please come back next month where we will be interviewing another wonderful luminary expert on other skills that we can all learn from.
I am your host, Samantha Ettus. You can always reach me on Twitter @samanthaettus, E-T-T-U-S. And we are always on Twitter @texaswomen and @pennwomen and @masswomen. So we love hearing from you. Thank you so much for listening.