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Is One of Your Kids Happier Than the Other?

Photograph by Twenty20

Do you have one of those children who just bounces back from adversity as if nothing bad ever happened? Maybe she had a rotten week at school, got bullied, failed a quiz, and yet she never gets too down? Or when something does upset her, she recovers in a flash and is ready to move on. She’s the “Life is good,” kid.

Or maybe you have the other kind of child who struggles to find her happy place, even when things are actually pretty great. She has close friends, good grades, a loving family, and everything else going for her, but she still finds something to grouch about, and never seems deeply satisfied.

Perhaps you have one of each, or some other combination, and you’ve always wondered about it? As in, how, if you raised your kids in a similar way, do they respond to the world so differently? Well, here's something to consider:

In her book "The How of Happiness," Sonja Lyubomirsky explains how the issues that a person faces in his or her life are not the major cause of their happiness levels. But, rather, 50 percent of a person’s happiness is explained by a genetically determined set point, one that can be calculated with the help of the four-question “Subjective Happiness Scale.”

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But you probably don’t even need that scale for what I’m about to tell you. All you do need to know is that your instincts as a parent are likely spot-on. If you think your child is often unhappy for no reason, she could very well have a low happiness set point. Or if you’re constantly astounded by how happy your kid is under any circumstances (mine had head-to-toe eczema for seven years, slept poorly every night, but still woke up with a smile), then chances are you have a child with a high happiness set point.

They don’t know how the genetics cause this to happen, but it’s real.

In other words, happiness is in your DNA.

Extensive research was conducted using some fascinating twin studies, showing that identical twins who have the same genetic make-up have strikingly comparable happiness levels through life; Even identical twins separated at birth shared a very similar happiness set-point. Fraternal twins, however, who are half less genetically similar than identical twins, can have very different set points.

In other words, happiness is in your DNA.

Which means what? Well, the idea is that if your child is genetically programmed for happiness, life may always look pretty good to her. According to Lyubomirsky’s studies, people with a high set point can suffer immeasurably, but they still see the glass as half full.

On the contrary, for those half-empty people, things aren’t going to get better unless they learn to take some control of the situation. If this describes your child, you can probably help her.

Let’s start by looking at a few more statistics, and some good news.

The set point may account for a whopping 50 percent of a person’s happiness, but there are other things that affect those levels, too. Circumstances account for 10 percent, while Intentional Activity makes up 40 percent. This last part is where you as a parent can have an effect.

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If you want to help a typically unhappy child be happier, you’re going to have to teach her to seek out activities that make her so. That could mean helping your child to recognize healthy things that make her happy and encouraging her to do them on a regular basis. Is that dancing? Reading? Playing with friends? Check in afterwards and remind her that she can affect her own mood and create her own good experiences. You and your spouse can also consider your own happiness levels and model embracing the bright side of life.

Start now while they're young and help them find a lifelong path of joy. At the end of the day, isn't that what every parent wants for their kid?

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