When I meet with teens in addiction recovery, they know the first question I’m going to ask. I always reserve a portion of our time together for one seemingly insignificant inquiry:
“What’s something that made you laugh?”
This past week, a couple of girls had a uniquely silly experience, and one of them made a point to take note of it. “We have to remember this to tell Bert when he asks for something funny!” she’d told her friend. And they had.
Both girls were laughing so hard, it took several minutes of gasping and happy-tear wiping to tell their funny story.
I looked around to find the rest of the kids—all of them, even the surliest teens—had fallen under the spell of defiant joy. Their smiles rebelled against the reality of court-ordered confinement.
In that fragile space, I had one desperate prayer, “God, please don’t let them surrender these moments.”
If we’re not careful, friends, that’s exactly what we learn to do: surrender joy.
Years ago, when my kids came home from school and I asked about their day, they usually answered with a lifeless shrug and as few syllables as possible. I still jokingly ask in a cartoonish voice, “Soooo, how was your daaaay?” when they come home. The replies are always the standard, “Meh,” or “It was a day.” However, I rarely let them off so easily.
“Tell me one thing you laughed at today.”
Sometimes they have a story ready. Sometimes it takes them a few minutes to recall a goofy moment. Occasionally, they’ve had a blah sort of day with nothing worthy of a good laugh. In any case, it’s okay with me, because them conjuring up a funny story to share isn’t the point of this little exercise.
What I’m hoping to nourish in my kids is the habit of cultivating joy.
Athletes and musicians talk a lot about muscle memory—working a muscle group until any movement becomes almost automatic. As a guitar player, I’ve spent hours practicing chord progressions for new songs my band will perform. When we’re on stage, I’m focused on my job as band leader and entertainer; I can’t stop to think about where my fingers are on the fretboard all night. The music has to be second nature. I have to practice until muscle memory takes over for me.
It’s exactly the same with your heart and mind.
We are creatures of habit, and the “skills” you practice will become part of your spiritual and emotional muscle memory. The world has a way of distracting us and wearing us down to the point of exhaustion. Before we even know what’s hit us, our lives become a downward spiral of hoop-jumping busyness. And when we’re struggling to just making it through the day, the first thing we surrender is our childlike nature—the playful, silly parts of us that are critical for the life we all want to have.
That’s like giving away the keys to the kingdom.
When I ask kids to tell me about something they laughed at, I’m not looking for entertainment value (although some of their stories have left me in stitches). Rather, I’m trying to pull them away from habits of frustration, sorrow, and indifference while urging them to start grabbing hold of joyful moments. I’m asking them to practice joy—letting themselves experience moments of happiness throughout the day—until it becomes second nature to them.
When that happens, the entire trajectory of their lives can change.
As Shawn Achor (positive psychology researcher and author) writes, “When our brains constantly scan for and focus on the positive, we profit from three of the most important tools available to us: happiness, gratitude, and optimism.” What’s more, we’re now learning how we’ve been screwing up kids by telling them happiness comes from success.
According to Achor, data reveals that “happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”
I know many “successful” people who are miserable curs, living with a host of unhealthy addictions. However, I can’t think of any genuinely happy people whose lives aren’t personal success stories.
Friends, we should be teaching our kids to reach for happy moments and store them up like squirrels harvesting nuts before a long winter. Laughter is a remarkable fuel for warmth, even on life’s cold days.
Ask your kids about their daily heart-smiles. Inspire them to not only embrace those precious moments, but also develop the habit (the muscle memory) of actively pursuing joy.
What made you laugh today?
That one question can change everything about their lives.
And the laughs you’ll share around the dinner table aren’t so bad, either.
Friends, please share this–it could help a lot of kids (and adults!).
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