I just recently had a chance to read the letters to the editor written in response to the San Francisco Chronicle magazine's December 30 cover story on the Greater Good Science Center, which focused on Christine Carter McLaughlin's efforts to promote research into childhood happiness. Marianne Thompson of Santa Rosa writes:

It's not the children who need instructions on how to live, but their parents! "Cultivating Happiness" (Dec. 30), is the latest article in a long misguided how-to list that is a certified prescription for raising robots. Parents need to be rescued from one more mechanical approach to raising kids.

Our children are not machines we fill up like cars at the pump of the latest fad. Trying to teach happiness and gratitude, the most spiritual food for our souls, makes one wonder: Just what in life are these adults missing?

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Despite working at Greater Good, I am actually very sympathetic to people who resist the notion that happiness is a skill–and as my colleagues at Greater Good know, I don't buy the idea that happiness is the apex of human existence. Sadness and anger also have their places.

And yet I think criticisms like Thompson's miss the value of promoting research into happiness and well-being. Many of the rituals mentioned in the article–eating dinner together, giving thanks, staying optimistic–are not fads at all, but time-tested ways for parents to make their children feel safe and loved.

The problem is that modern conditions make these rituals difficult to practice in daily life. The parents of one family I know are overwhelmed by their daily routine: thanks to long commutes, they miss family meals; in the throes of taking care of two young children, they often forget to stop and appreciate what they have. Another letter writer suggested that only affluent people are interested in happiness, but the family I'm describing is barely middle class; they are knee deep in debt and just holding on.

When they read the Chronicle piece, it made them realize that they had forgotten some simple but important things. As a result, they are trying much harder to have meals together and they go out of their way to express thanks in front of their children. They're not trying to raise robots; instead, they're doing their best to create a happy home. If the work of the Greater Good Science Center helped this one family to do that, even a little bit, then that can't be a bad thing.

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