[Read: 7 Steps to Successful Family Meals.]
Happiness depends not on deluding ourselves about negativity, but putting it in perspective to surmount the obstacles, Achor says. It's what he calls "rational optimism" – or what you may recognize as encouragement.
When it comes to parenting, that means making your child's goals seem more within reach and the negative habit harder to persist. Want your kid to watch less TV and exercise more? Hide the remote, so it takes more effort to switch channels, and put her in sneakers so she's ready to get moving. Or, take a cue from research, which found that as rats approached cheese, they ran more quickly through a maze to reach it. So, break up your child's goals into smaller objectives so they seem easier to obtain.
And if nothing else, have fun. As a counselor to college freshmen at Harvard University for several years, Achor recalls the mentality that made so many students miserable – that happiness would follow success. Instead, enjoy the process to bring about success. Rather than wait to reward your child for finishing his homework, let him wear his favorite pajamas while he studies, or kick off the study session with a funny story.
All this positive energy isn't easy, Achor admits. The human brain "naturally scans for threats," he says. So, even when we're not facing a sabre-toothed tiger, we may still act like it. But we don't have to. "While it takes more cognitive processing to be happier, the more that you do these positive habits, the more that you switch your default." And, according to Achor, happiness is "the belief that you can change."
It's commonly said that it takes more muscles to smile than to frown. Of course, smiling gives you – and others – an instant lift. So, if you find yourself scowling at your child, try fighting gravity, and perhaps your nature, and curl your lips upward. Here's betting your kid will smile right back.
[See: 8 Ways to Become an Optimist.]
Corrected on 08/09/13: A previous version of this story misstated the academic affiliation of Shawn Achor.