Happiness can be contagious—the scientific benefits of happy mothers on their families

How to fight back against the 'joy stealers' and become a happier mama

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"If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." You've heard the phrase, and while it might be a bit exaggerated, there is some truth to be found here. A mother's happiness (or lack thereof) does have an effect on her children. I know this because, a few years ago, I wasn't happy.

I lost my joy, and I saw how that loss affected my entire family, including my two boys. Striving to be all and do all, and to do it mostly alone led me to a breaking point. Overwhelmed and frustrated one day, I asked my son, "Would you rather have a happy mom or a perfect one?" He didn't miss a beat. "A happy one, definitely." He told me how much my happiness meant to him, and how it hurt him to see my sadness. Of course! Why couldn't I see before how much he longed to have back the mommy who smiled?

Mothers today face a lot of challenges. Happiness stealers are everywhere. They range from mild annoyances to severe problems, and the trouble can start early in the motherhood journey. Up to 80% of new moms experience the baby blues, which includes symptoms of mood changes, irritability, anxiousness, and crying a lot. These feelings are generally mild and disappear within a couple of weeks. When it doesn't feel mild or does go away, it might be postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression is more severe and occurs after nearly 15% of births, and research from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute found the number of women suffering from depression is at its peak four years after birth—even though many people believe that postpartum depression only comes on while your child is still an infant. The researchers also found that almost one in three women reported depressive symptoms at some time in the first four years after birth, and about one in every eight women will experience depression during their lifetime.

Depression is hard, both for the mother and for her child. Research is clear on how maternal depression affects children and shows that "when children grow up in an environment of mental illness, the development of their brains may be...weakened, with implications for their ability to learn as well as for their own later physical and mental health." Children of depressed mothers are often more anxious, have lower cognitive performance, conduct disorders, and psychiatric disorders. Because depressed others are often withdrawn or disengaged, this has a profound effect on attachment and child development.

Of course, depression is not something we can always prevent, and we certainly cannot just "make it go away." Remember that mental illness is not your fault, and that there is help. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, please reach out to your doctor and seek counseling. You deserve to live a happy life. Too many moms assume that feelings of sadness or anxiousness are normal, and they don't find the help they need.

Clinical depression isn't the only threat mothers face to their mental wellbeing. A UK study found that more than 90% of moms feel lonely after having children. In addition, 55% said that loneliness left them suffering with anxiety while 47% felt "very stressed" about it. Isolation isn't good for our happiness and mental wellness. Research has shown that a lack of social connection is a greater detriment to our health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.

As the village disappears and mothers are trying to do so much on their own, our happiness is suffering. I experienced this when we moved to a new state a few years ago. My friends and family were gone, and anxiety hit me so hard that I wasn't able to get out and make new friends. I barely left my home for a year.

Despite having hundreds of online "friends," I felt more alone than ever before. The isolation took a painful toll, and it took me a long time to finally reach out for connection. I'm so glad I finally did.

The list of joy stealers goes on. Guilt. Shame. Fear. Mental overload. Anxiety. Busyness. Toxic people. The comparison trap. Like most moms, I faced all of these issues and more, but I decided that if I was to give my boy the gift he truly wanted, the gift of a happy mother, I was going to have to learn ways of overcoming them all and finding joy in the everyday chaos.

It is my hope that, as my sons watch me fiercely protect my joy against the slings and arrows of life, they will also take up their shields, build up their armor, and beat back the darkness. Ultimately, mothers just want our children to be happy. We need to show them how.

In her book, Raising Happiness, Christine Carter, Ph.D. says that one of the best ways to raise happy children is to model happiness ourselves. She states, "Our own happiness influences our children's happiness in a variety of ways. If I fail to put on my own oxygen mask first (by not getting the sleep or exercise I need, for example) and I become depressed or chronically anxious, my children may suffer. There is also compelling evidence for the flip side of this equation: When I do what it takes for my own happiness, my children will reap the benefits."

Emotions are contagious. In research by The Greater Good Science Center, it was found that the emotions and emotional reactions of friends and lovers actually become more alike over the course of a year, and, importantly, the person with the least power in the relationship become more emotionally similar to the other.

So, it makes sense that our children become emotionally similar to us. Furthermore, research out of Harvard and the University of California, San Diego found that happiness is contagious! It spreads through social networks like a virus. So, if you're happy, that happiness will spread to your children, their friends, your friends, and who knows who it will end up touching? And because we all know that children are great at mimicking us, when we build happiness habits into our own lives, they learn how to build them into theirs.

Here are three happiness habits you can start building today, mama.

1. Seek out silver linings.

When dark clouds roll in or things seem really difficult, look for a silver lining, a glimmer of hope or goodness in the situation. Look for a way to reframe what you initially viewed as negative to something positive or helpful. Do a short three-minute meditation on that silver lining when you feel it's necessary throughout the day, but try to do it at least once per day.

To practice this habit, look back on a difficult situation from your past. Looking back, can you see a silver lining now? Did the situation help you in some way? Did it teach you something valuable to contain a hidden gift?

2. Make soul deposits daily.

A soul deposit is anything that feeds your soul and makes you feel joy, awe, wonder, or gratitude. We often think it's the big self-care acts that feed our souls—a date night without the kids or a day at the spa—but life is made up of moments, and the more magical, joyful moments we grab, the happier our lives become. The littlest things like the smell of a vanilla candle, playing with your child, or eating a piece of chocolate can become a little burst of joy in your day if you stop and pay attention.

3. Take baby steps.

If you are suffering with depression, anxiety, or loneliness, I want to encourage you to reach out. One little step is all it takes to start healing. You don't have to conquer this today. You just need a tiny bit of courage to move.

Maybe that looks like putting on pants that aren't leggings or going outside for a walk. Perhaps it's picking up the phone to call the doctor's office or to call a friend you haven't spoken to in a while. Know that relationships can be repaired and people can heal, so if your struggle has caused you to snap at your loved ones, give yourself compassion and forgiveness.

For more strategies and inspiration like this, check out Rebecca's new highly anticipated book, The Gift of a Happy Mother: Letting Go of Perfection and Embracing Everyday Joy.

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