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It’s pretty well-established that being happy goes along with being healthy. Having a positive attitude, even laughing every day, has been linked to everything from more friends to fewer colds. A new study in Psychological Science offers a clue why this is… and suggests that keeping your children happy may be the secret to keeping them healthy.

The study worked with middle-aged adults. It began by recording participants’ activity level in the central nervous system responsible for regulating internal organs, heartbeat, and emotional activity. Participants were also asked to keep track of their emotional highs and lows and their level of social connection for two months. During that time, half the participants were enrolled in a program intended to increase their level of happiness and well-being.

Researchers found that study participants who got the boost to their happiness levels also reported more pleasant emotions and greater connection to others. Not only that, a retest of their body systems showed they were more healthy and better functioning. Participants who received the happiness training were also more physically active, ate better, and indulged in fewer bad habits than they had before. Being happy acted like a vitamin, boosting overall emotional and physical well-being.

What does this mean for us? Well, of course, this is just one study and the participants were not children. But boosting children’s feelings of happiness doesn’t cost us anything. And it just might pay off with better behavior and even better health. What does being happy mean to a child?

It doesn’t mean getting everything he wants. That’s not happiness. For children, being happy means feeling capable and confident. It means being treated with respect and warmth. It means knowing that someone cares very much. Happy children are children whose parents pay attention and are happy people themselves. Happy children come from happy families… and, it seems like, healthy families as well.

Along with the usual daily vitamins, make sure your children get a big dose of the most important vitamin of all – happiness. This vitamin H might be exactly what the doctor ordered for good development.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, is available in bookstores now.