Raise a happy child!

Make smil­ing a nor­mal part of your day with this book ex­tract from Grow­ing Up Happy

Your Baby & Toddler - - Must Reads -

We might not know all the good that a sim­ple smile can do but we now know enough to say that smil­ing can ac­tively boost our hap­pi­ness. It’s a twoway ben­e­fit: smil­ing im­proves our mood, but look­ing at smil­ing faces can also make us hap­pier and more op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture. On top of that, smil­ing at oth­ers can make us seem more ap­proach­able and friend­lier, giv­ing us a so­cial ad­van­tage too.

Com­mon sense tells us that peo­ple who are hap­pier smile more, but could it be that a smile is only the first part of a vir­tu­ous, happy cycle? Does a smile have to be gen­uine to ben­e­fit the mood of the giver or re­ceiver? And how can we best nudge chil­dren to­wards sim­ply smil­ing a lit­tle bit more?


Ba­bies’ smiles are one of the ear­li­est re­wards of par­ent­ing. In re­turn, most ba­bies see a higher pro­por­tion of smil­ing faces dur­ing their ear­li­est months than they ever will again. What ef­fect does this re­cip­ro­cal smil­ing have, and when do ba­bies start to un­der­stand what a smile means? Of course ba­bies can­not tell us di­rectly what they see or un­der­stand. But by study­ing what they choose to pay at­ten­tion to, we have learnt a lot about how the de­vel­op­ing brain and vis­ual sys­tem lets ba­bies learn about the sig­nif­i­cance of smil­ing faces.

At just a few days old, new­born ba­bies pre­fer to look at faces than any­thing else, and by three months old, they can tell the dif­fer­ence between happy, sur­prised and an­gry faces. This is quite re­mark­able given how im­ma­ture the vis­ual sys­tem is at birth, and re­flects just how im­por­tant a cue faces are dur­ing devel­op­ment. By four months, ba­bies pre­fer to look at happy faces than faces with other ex­pres­sions. At around five months, they start to un­der­stand that two dif­fer­ent peo­ple’s happy faces are in some way sim­i­lar, although they don’t seem to learn about other cat­e­gories of emo­tion for a cou­ple more months, per­haps be­cause they see more happy faces than any other kind. This cat­e­gori­sa­tion is the be­gin­ning of the path to un­der­stand­ing that “happy face” is a uni­ver­sal re­ac­tion to a par­tic­u­lar kind of sit­u­a­tion, teach­ing ba­bies some­thing about cause and ef­fect in the world around them. By around one year, in­fants use other peo­ple’s smiles and other fa­cial ex­pres­sions as so­cial ref­er­ence cues, help­ing them in­ter­pret the emo­tional sig­nif­i­cance of events.

As lan­guage and other skills de­velop, smiles be­come just one of the child’s tools to un­der­stand the world and ex­press his or her own feel­ings. Young chil­dren quickly be­come adept at un­der­stand­ing and ex­press­ing feel­ings through words, tone of voice, body lan­guage and ges­tures. Yet fa­cial ex­pres­sions, par­tic­u­larly smiles, seem to re­tain a uniquely im­por­tant role. We process them in­cred­i­bly quickly: stud­ies mea­sur­ing the elec­tri­cal ac­tiv­ity of the brain show that it takes less than one-

seventh of a sec­ond for the brain to re­spond to pic­tures of peo­ple smil­ing.

Fa­cial ex­pres­sions are also a key com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool for our pri­mate rel­a­tives, where the abil­ity to ex­press emo­tions vo­cally is lim­ited. Pri­mates “smile” us­ing a fa­cial mus­cle struc­ture that is al­most iden­ti­cal to ours, pro­duc­ing a bare-toothed grin that is used to com­mu­ni­cate and strengthen so­cial bonds in just the same way as our smile.

So how does smil­ing more pro­mote hap­pi­ness? One way is that, when it comes to smil­ing, fak­ing it re­ally does make you feel bet­ter. In one clas­sic psy­chol­ogy ex­per­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants were asked to rate how funny dif­fer­ent car­toons were while ei­ther hold­ing a pen­cil between their front teeth – which forces a smile-like fa­cial ex­pres­sion – or between their lips, which pre­vented them from smil­ing. As you’ll have guessed, those with the pen­cil between their teeth found the car­toons fun­nier than those who were pre­vented from smil­ing. This is one ex­am­ple of a big­ger truth: our psy­cho­log­i­cal and cog­ni­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of emo­tion is ir­re­vo­ca­bly mixed up with our phys­i­cal, bod­ily ex­pe­ri­ence.

Smiles are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when deal­ing with kids be­cause emo­tions are con­ta­gious. We of­ten, un­wit­tingly, mimic the fa­cial ex­pres­sion and pos­ture of some­one we’re talk­ing to. Peo­ple who get along well – such as part­ners in happy mar­riages – are more of­ten seen to do this, while those who find so­cial in­ter­ac­tions more dif­fi­cult, such as peo­ple with autism, do it less. In fact re-en­act­ing the phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion of some­one else’s emo­tion with our own body causes us to feel, psy­cho­log­i­cally, a lit­tle bit of their emo­tional state.

Re­cently it has been sug­gested that there

may be spe­cific neu­rons in the front part of our brains that are di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the ef­fect that watch­ing an­other per­son’s ac­tion has on you. Mir­ror neu­rons are nerve cells which fire both when you per­form a spe­cific ac­tion and when you see an­other per­son per­form­ing that ac­tion. Although dis­cov­ered orig­i­nally in pri­mates, di­rect record­ings from wires in­serted into the brains of peo­ple who were hav­ing surgery for epilepsy sug­gest that they also ex­ist in hu­mans. Mir­ror neu­rons may be im­por­tant in many as­pects of our so­cial devel­op­ment, in­clud­ing em­pa­thy and bonding: we know, for ex­am­ple, that we like peo­ple more if we im­i­tate them. Mir­ror neu­rons may also be one of the means by which chil­dren can learn by watch­ing oth­ers rather than through di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence – some­thing that could be help­ful or un­help­ful, depend­ing on the model they are learn­ing from!

Feel­ing an emo­tion your­self and recog­nis­ing it in an­other per­son’s ex­pres­sion are quite sim­i­lar at the level of brain func­tion. To demon­strate this, in one ex­per­i­ment par­tic­i­pants un­der­went brain scan­ning while smelling a dis­gust­ing smell, and then again when watch­ing a video of some­one else ex­press­ing their dis­gust. The two ex­pe­ri­ences were found to ac­ti­vate much of the same neu­ral cir­cuitry. Other stud­ies have shown that re­mem­ber­ing an emo­tion ac­ti­vates much of the same sys­tem as ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it in the first place. This is prob­a­bly why re­liv­ing emo­tional mo­ments can be as in­tense as ex­pe­ri­enc­ing them for the first time (and why re­mem­ber­ing happy times can be a con­sid­er­able mood boost to kids and adults alike!).

Not all smiles de­note hap­pi­ness. Some peo­ple smile when they lie, when they flirt, are em­bar­rassed or fright­ened. Paul Ek­man, the psy­chol­o­gist who first doc­u­mented how uni­ver­sal hu­man fa­cial ex­pres­sions are, de­scribed seven­teen ad­di­tional types of smile. Faked smiles are rel­a­tively easy to de­tect, be­cause they don’t usu­ally ac­ti­vate the cheek raiser mus­cle that cre­ates crow’s feet around the eyes. But even non-ex­perts rate real smiles, and the peo­ple that give them, as more gen­uine, at­trac­tive and trust­wor­thy.

So, smil­ing is def­i­nitely a good way to boost your and your kids’ day. And if you re­ally don’t feel like smil­ing, it’s prob­a­bly worth fak­ing it from time to time. YB

Grow­ing Up Happy:: Ten Proven Ways To In­crease Your Child’s Hap­pi­ness And Well-be­ing by Alexia Barrable & Dr Jenny Bar­nett

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