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Un-birthday, Anyone?

Celebrating the little things can help kids become happier adults.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter explains to Alice that for every birthday, there are 364 un-birthdays in the year. Every day is a cause for celebration, even small achievements are worth commemorating. Photo by DUNCAN WALKER.


by Mary Widdicks

Special to The Washington Post

Now, statistics prove that you’ve one birthday. Imagine, just one birthday every year. Ah, but there are 364 un-birthdays! Precisely why we’re gathered here to cheer, A very merry un-birthday to you. 

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Un-birthdays. It’s nonsense, right? After all, that’s the point of the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; he’s mad. But what if in this case he has a point? Every day is a cause for celebration, even small achievements are worth commemorating. 

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once observed that it is human nature to feel negative experiences, but we don’t actually feel the lack of negative emotions. It’s simply a case of stimulus versus no stimulus. Un-birthdays aren’t a thing, unless we choose to celebrate them.

So you create new feelings, to fill that void. If you look around you there are plenty of real-life opportunities to stop and acknowledge the times when everything is going to plan.

For example, I remember when my oldest child “graduated” from preschool. His teacher handed him a tiny diploma, which he couldn’t even read, and then paraded 12 4-year-olds across a stage as “Pomp and Circumstance” blasted at full volume from someone’s iPhone speaker. I whispered to the other parents and wondered why it was necessary to make such a production out of preschool graduation. After all, it’s not like they could have failed.

I rolled my eyes that day, but the joke was probably on me, because there is a logical argument for celebrating something in my kids’ lives every day. Just like an un-birthday.

The human brain is designed to favor negative information and memories. Unfortunately, the primitive humans who remembered foreboding feelings tended to be more cautious in the future, and therefore less likely to be eaten by lions, and tigers and bears. (Oh, my.) In psychology, this is known as the negativity bias. This means that, even as children, when something doesn’t go our way, we are more likely to skew our entire lives with that negativity.

Think about the number of times your child has asked for a cookie before dinner, you say no, and they quickly fire back, “You never let me have ANYTHING I want!” Science suggests that their brains are recalling the negative memories of being denied sweets, while forgetting all the times you did give them what they asked for. That’s just evolution for you.

However, there are ways to train your brain, and your child’s, to balance out the natural predisposition toward negativity.

Research has found that humans experience and recall negative emotions with a magnitude of about five times that of positive emotions. This means for every negative experience, we’d need five positive ones to balance out the feelings. There are also theories that suggest that negative emotions are managed by a different hemisphere of the brain than positive emotions, which may lead to people over-analyzing negative experiences.

And it makes sense that if children are five times more likely to remember and fixate on negative events, then of course they’re going to feel like you’re a mean parent who never lets them have cookies before dinner. So what can we do to acknowledge and remember the disadvantaged positive feelings?

Celebrating small accomplishments is one of the most effective ways to bolster positive feelings and increase overall happiness. We simply make the good memories more accessible. Also, children learn through modeling, so every time they witness us commemorating something good it trains them to find positive moments in their own lives. Of course, it doesn’t have to mean throwing a lavish party every time we don’t burn dinner or getting a fancy prize every time we remember to take the trash out. There’s only so much champagne we can imbibe on a daily basis before we run out of money and brain cells.

The goal is to trick our brains into forming stronger associations with good feelings to give them a boost when competing with negative experiences. Tangible reminders such as placing notes on a “success wall” or keeping a diary of good things that happen each day can strengthen the memories. It’s simple repetition. Children who are too young to read and write can have a celebration song. Even just taking a moment to savor the good things each day can help protect us against focusing on only the negative things in our lives.

It’s about forming new habits. Any type of behavior change takes time and effort because we are essentially creating new pathways in our brains. The older and more set in our negative ways we are, the more difficult and uncomfortable it can be to make positive changes. But the human brain is easy to fool. Even if you simply go through the motions of celebrating, faking a smile or forcing a laugh, your brain will respond by releasing the same chemicals and producing the same beneficial effects over time as if those feelings were genuine. In other words, fake it until you make it.

And parents, we can do our children a huge favor by helping them form these habits when their brains are still new and pliable. Young children have exponentially more neurons and pathways than adults. They are primed to learn about the world and are actively forming patterns as they develop into adolescence and trim down those neural connections. Wouldn’t it be great if, as adults, we didn’t have to remind ourselves to look for the small joys in life? If it were just second nature?

The practice of celebrating and commemorating the times when nothing goes wrong is a gift we can give to our children, and it can increase their overall happiness throughout their lives.

Widdicks is a former cognitive psychologist, freelance writer and novelist.