Ep 21: Teaching Your Teen to Be Happy

Episode Summary

Tim Bono, author of When Likes Aren’t Enough, reveals some strategies parents can use to help teens cope with setbacks and maintain a positive outlook in the face of obstacles and failure. Ultimately, the tools discussed in this interview are things that can also improve your own life if you apply them.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

One of life’s enduring challenges is finding happiness in daily life. Far too often, we get caught up in the monotony of the day, shuffling back and forth between work, school, and the people we cross paths with. That’s why it feels rewarding when carry good vibrations and positive energy throughout the day instead! Although for many teenagers, finding happiness can be especially difficult.

Research suggests this could have something to do with social media. With the rise of social media sites, teenage attention is caught up in the shiny, impeccable images of their peers on apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Teenagers unable to balance what they see online with the imperfections of real life can be vulnerable to a massive mental health crisis. This, among other factors, has caused teenagers to experience high rates of anxiety and depression, reducing teen happiness across the board. This makes me want to know how to make your teenager happy!

On this week’s episode of Talking to Teens, we’re going to explore expert ideas for how to make your teenager happy with Professor Tim Bono. Tim is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches one of the most popular classes at the university. The class isn’t your typical university course by any means, because it’s not about art or mathematics… It’s a class on how to make your teenager happy! The class uncovers the psychology of happiness, and how students can pursue happier lives through positive psychology. Tim is also the author of the book When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness, in which he details the latest and greatest in happy living.

When I asked Tim about social media use and teens, he mentioned a study that found a correlation between the relative happiness of a teenager and how many hours they spend on social media in a day. This has a direct impact on how to make your teenager happy.

A Social Media Study

The results of the study were not what I expected. It turns out that teens who spend more time on social media tend to have a lower self-esteem and are less happy across the board. It seems odd that social media would make people feel less connected to their friends, but that’s what the data suggests. It’s critical for parents to understand this relationship because it’s not an obvious one, but has big health implications for how to make your teenager happy.

If you are concerned that your teen might be spending too much time online, there are numerous ways you can decrease their time on social media. For example, you could use parental controls to limit the time your teen spends on certain apps. Parental controls vary, but one control I can personally recommend is setting daily limits on certain apps on your teen’s phone. By setting a one-hour daily limit on social media, teens can stay in the loop on their apps, without losing their day to the them. If you feel strongly that your teen is spending too much time online, take time to have a conversation with them expressing your concerns.

However, social media is not the only factor that affects how to make your teenager happy. 


If you want to know how to make your teenager happy, you need to know about agency. Tim tells me that agency is a psychological concept that can help improve a teen’s sense of self-worth and happiness. Agency is when a person realizes that they have power to control their own fate and can work to live their life however they want. One way to have a sense of agency is through attribution, which comes in two types, Internal and External.

Internal attribution is the feeling of reward one gets from completing a task they set out to do on their own, whether or not they accomplished the goals they set out to accomplish.

External attribution is the feeling of accomplishment one receives when they have received outside assistance to complete a task, and generally it is a less rewarding feeling.

Mastering how to make your teenager happy means emphasizing internal attribution opportunities. For example, if a teen uses CliffNotes on an essay and earns a good grade, they will most likely feel some type of external attribution as they used someone else’s notes to assist their thoughts. Even though they got a good grade, it is likely that they won’t feel as accomplished as they could have. Contrarily, if they came up with all the ideas on their own, they might feel better about themselves because they did all the hard work unassisted. Even if the overall grade is a little lower.

Parents can help by guide their teens towards internal attribution over external attribution by highlighting their teens’ hard work. To take steps towards recognizing internal attribution, you could ask questions about the difficulty of your teen’s work and how they managed to get it all done. Upon reflection, your teen might gain a sense reward for their hard efforts and feel happier. Over time, this can build a positive mentality that your teen will use to tackle any problem they face at school, at work, or at home.

Highlighting your teen’s efforts also taps into a psychological concept called the Locus of Control.

The Locus of Control

Like attribution, the locus of control has internal and external aspects that can help you identify how to make your teenager happy. To have an internal locus of control means to determine your own destiny via the actions and decisions you make. On the other hand, having an external locus of control means what happens to you is generally less under your control. Psychologists find that having an internal local of control is associated with improved mood. Here’s how you make your teenager happy with this knowledge:

If your teen comes home from school feeling accomplished about an essay, asking the right questions can help your teen adopt that sense of joy in the long term. The trick is getting them to understand their accomplishment was something totally under their control.

Did they research extensively? Write a rough draft? Go to office hours for clarification on the topic? In your pursuit to learn how to make your teenager happy, there are a wide range of questions that you can ask your teen. The point is to help them realize the power they have over what they do. Alternatively, if your teen receives a bad grade on an essay they spent a lot of time on, it could be helpful for you to ask similar questions about the essay in order to determine where they came up short. By helping your teen determine how they came up short on their assignment, they can take control of the situation and improve their approach for the next writing assignment.  

Together, having insight on social media, agency, and control can positively influence how to make your teenager happy. Other topics we discuss in this episode include:

  • The importance of sleep schedules
  • Multitasking (and why it’s hard!)
  • How to get teens to “buy” your help
  • Giving a teen a meaningful gift

I hope you enjoyed Professor Tim Bono’s excellent information on how to make your teenager happy and can boost the good vibes at home!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Motivate your teenager to improve him or herself by focusing on achieving a positive outcome:

“I’ve noticed you don’t seem as happy as you did in the past and you haven’t been completing as many of your school assignments on time. How do you feel about that? Well, do you wish that you had more ability to pay attention to your work at school? Do you wish that you were feeling a bit happier? Are you interested in learning about some research that has been conducted with other young adults to see how they have been able to do that?”

-Tim Bono

2.  After your teenager has a “win,” or a “loss,” like a particularly good or bad grade on a test, focus on the aspects that were within their control:

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3.  Motivate your teenager to improve him or herself by providing models who are the same age and have gone through the same thing successfully:

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4.  Get your teen more motivated by contacting or researching a role model and finding out about the challenges they faced on the way to success:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Find Positive Role Models for Your Teen:

One of the best ways to help a teenager, according to happiness expert Tim Bono, is to get them looking up to the right models. On a piece of paper, start to write down people who could potentially be good models for your son or daughter. Tim says you’re looking for people who are, perhaps, a couple years older than your teen or in their early twenties. They should be doing well in their life and should be someone the teen looks up to. By learning more about these individuals, your teen will start to realize they had similar problems to the problems the teen is currently having. Try to think about slightly older kids who your teen really respects. Once you have ten names, circle the most promising one and make a plan to get your teen together with this person ASAP.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So you wrote this book and it’s heavily influenced by positive psychology, but it doesn’t just stay in the positive psychology realm. I think that you mentioned in there that one of the early titles that you guys talked about for the book was proactive, happiness or something like that. I was curious what made you end up going with the title that you did go with and what are the factors that went into that?

Tim: Sure. Well, as you say, this is a book that is rooted in positive psychology and the science of happiness, and it has its origins in a class that I teach on this topic at Washington University in St. Louis that is really geared toward college students. Because one of the things that we know about college students is that on average, they’re facing a mental health crisis with rates of depression and anxiety higher than they’ve ever been before. And so we think that these messages are applicable to everybody across the lifespan, but we especially wanted to target young adults who are going through this major life transition, finding themselves, heading to college and trying to develop that sense of meaning and purpose that I think we all are after.

Tim: And so, as we were thinking about what some of the barriers to a sense of happiness and wellbeing are, one of the things that we kept coming back to is the role that social media plays and how so much of our society and our culture has this obsession with crafting this digital persona that looks really amazing and wonderful. That usually isn’t actually tapping the reality that a person is living in their day to day lives.

Tim: And so we thought that this angle might be something that would draw a reader in and be something that people could relate to. This book is not to say that we should be getting rid of social media, but it is to say that when we’ve spent a lot of time on putting images on Instagram and Facebook that get attention from others, that if that isn’t bringing us a sense of wellbeing as we want it to, and the research suggests it probably isn’t, here are some behaviors and strategies that social scientists have identified that actually are capable of bringing about that happiness and wellbeing, that again, so many of us are seeking in our lives.

Andy: I think that’s really interesting. And our lab here at Loyola Marymount, does work on adolescent risk behaviors, and we’ve been doing a lot of stuff lately, looking at social media and the influence of social media on risk behaviors. And we’re finding that it’s really influential. You actually mentioned in the book that you have some data surrounding this, and I believe that it was some correlational data showing a negative association between the amount of time that students spend on social media and then their happiness or their level of flourishing in life. Is that right?

Tim: Yes, that’s correct. In pretty much every data set that I’ve collected, where I ask students to report the amount of time that they’re using on social media, and then I look at other psychological outcomes that are associated with the use of social media, it’s in exactly the pattern that you describe. Where the more time that they’re spending on social media scrolling, looking through other people’s posts or posting information about their own lives, that is correlated with lower self esteem, less sleep, less confidence, less optimism.

Tim: And one of the most ironic correlations that also happens to be one of the strongest is that the more time people spend on social media, the less connected they feel to actual people, which you would think that social media is supposed to be connecting us to other people. And yet it seems to be undermining the strength of the connections that we have. And that’s this very sad paradox, because one of the strongest predictors of happiness is the strength of our connections with other people. And yet social media seems to be undermining that.

Tim: So we are replacing the time that should be going or could be going toward actually building happiness by spending time with friends and family and we’re replacing that with a behavior that actually runs in the opposite direction. Social media is ultimately a means of social comparison and that seems to be driving down happiness and driving up those rates of anxiety and depression.

Andy: Yeah. A lot of people are talking about it right now. I think it’s an important issue. And I like your approach to it because the statistics professors out there will all say correlation doesn’t equal causation. So we don’t know necessarily from this data that you’ve collected that higher social media use is actually causing these effects that you’re talking about. But the fact that there’s this association as a parent, if you’re seeing your teenager on social media a lot, it means whether it’s causal or not, there’s likely some of these things that you’re finding in your research and your teenager potentially could be flourishing more. And so some of these strategies that you point out in your book are really cool because there’s a fine line as a parent, right?

Andy: We talked to this lady who I really loved Dr. Deborah Gilboa, who has a couple of great books on parenting. And one of her big things is that as a parent, your child’s happiness is not your responsibility. To make sure that your child feels good all the time and is happy all the time. So there’s that. But then at the same time, as a parent, you do want to give your kid the mental tools so that they will be able to make themselves happy or that when they do encounter anxiety, stress, depression, that they will be able to be resilient and to bounce back. And so I think that a lot of the strategies that you talk about in your book are great things that parents want to make sure that their teenagers know about. But then the question is, how do you introduce some of this stuff to your teenager in a way that doesn’t make them defensive?

Tim: Yeah, sure. And that’s a really important question because one of the things that we know about these strategies is that if they start to feel like a chore, then people become less likely to engage in them and they’re also less likely to experience the benefits that can come from them.

Andy: Okay. You talk in your book about internal versus external attributions.

Tim: Yes.

Andy: And so that’s what made me start thinking about this from the parenting perspective is yeah. You want your team to learn these strategies, but you also want to make them feel like they found it themselves or something like that. Rather than that you just made them do it as their parent. How does internal versus external attributions work and what does that mean?

Tim: Sure. So if something is drawn from an internal attribution, that means that you’re doing it of your own volition and it’s something that you personally want to have happen. And therefore the outcome is going to be attributed to yourself. So that, for example, if you go for a run and you start to feel better and you start to feel happier, then the attribution is because of something that you yourself did versus an external attribution might be, if you do something that makes you feel good, but it’s because of an external source. It’s because someone else did it for you.

Tim: Or for example, let’s imagine that you get an A+ on a term paper. While there’s one of two ways to do that. One is because you had to work really hard and put in the time and effort that was necessary to achieve that grade. That would be an internal attribution. It’s because of you. It’s because of the work that you put into it. An external attribution might be something like you downloaded the paper from online. So you didn’t actually write the paper, but someone else did the work for you, and now you’re getting credit for it. So although you may have gotten an A in the grade book, it’s due to some other source, or maybe it was just an extremely easy paper to write. So the reason you got an A is not because of anything that you did necessarily, it’s just that the assignment was so easy that you can attribute the good grade to some external source, like ease of the assignment.

Tim: So that’s the distinction that we draw between an internal attribution and an external attribution is the outcome that is associated with it. What is that due to? Is it due to yourself or due to some other characteristic beyond yourself?

Andy: And I guess [inaudible 00:08:11] has some stuff about how optimists versus pessimists tending to make internal versus external attributions for various things where optimists tend to develop internal attributions for good things and external attributions for… When things go wrong. “That was out of my control. That wasn’t my fault.” But when they go well, “Oh yeah. That’s because I made it go well.” Versus pessimists. So it’s not necessarily that internal is always good and external is always bad, but it does seem like there’s this related concept of the locus of control, an internal versus an external locus of control. And so I wonder if helping your teenager to develop these internal attributions then leads to them having more of an internal locus of control and what that means.

Tim: Yes. Yeah. And that’s really important because as you say, it can help develop a sense of optimism if you start to make those internal attributions when things are going well. And so one way to help children or teenagers to develop that internal locus of control has to do with the reaction that you might have after something happens.

Tim: So let’s imagine that they do bring home a report card with really good grades. Instead of just immediately saying, “Oh, that’s great. Let’s put this on the refrigerator. You’re so smart. And you’re brilliant.” In addition to giving that feedback and celebrating that positive outcome, you might ask them questions like, “Well, tell me how you did that? Tell me about the study strategies and the hard work and the sacrifices that was required in order to earn those good grades?” Because then you’re really highlighting the hard work. You’re highlighting the work that they themselves had to put in, in order to achieve that outcome. And so you’re directing attention, not just to the outcome, but importantly to the source of the outcome.

Tim: And the same thing is true of when things don’t go well. So let’s say that they get a C on a paper. It’s also important to say, “Well, let’s think about the process by which that occurred.” Because then you’re continuing to put emphasis on the component of that, that is within their control. So that maybe they waited until the night before to start, or maybe they used the wrong sources in the paper. Then you’re leading them to a point where they can identify what they might do differently in the future. And that proves to be very effective and very useful in allowing them to make those internal attributions and identify what are the things that worked well that they can continue to do in the future. And maybe what are some of the things that didn’t work as well, that they can change. So that the next time they can come closer to achieving the goal that they have.

Andy: By focusing on these internal attributions, is that going to develop in your teenager, authentic self esteem and what the heck is authentic self esteem anyways?

Tim: Sure. Well, when we talk about self-esteem, a lot of people assume that it only refers to how you feel about yourself. So that it’s always feeling good about yourself. And certainly that’s a component of self esteem, is holding yourself in high regard. But just as important as feeling good about yourself is knowing how to cope with disappointment and adversity when things don’t go well, because everybody feels bad in that situation. Nobody likes to fail. But the true sign of self esteem comes when you’ve worked hard on the paper, when you’ve worked really hard to achieve a goal or to train really hard for a sport, and you still lose the game, that’s where you really learn something valuable about somebody’s psychological strength and their overall self esteem.

Tim: Because again, everybody’s going to feel bad in that situation, but the individuals with high self esteem have this repertoire of strategies that allows them to bounce back and allows them to reflect on the experience and to think, “Okay, what are the things I could do differently here in the future?” And they will do things to restore their mood. They will call a friend, they’ll go out to the movies, they’ll treat themselves to something special to help them get back up on their feet and try it again.

Tim: Again, nobody likes to fail. It’s not that people with high self esteem are somehow immune to the negativity that comes from setbacks, but they are more motivated to persist even in the face of failure and say, “Okay, this didn’t work out as I was hoping or planning. So I’m going to regroup and…” From that, develop a sense of mastery by engaging their social network and reflecting on it and extracting some meaning from it.

Tim: And it’s very easy to look at people who have been successful and say, “Oh, everything they’ve ever tried has always worked out for them.” Well often it’s the case that the people who have succeeded the most are also the same people who have failed the most. But instead of interpreting their failure as a signal of defeat, they instead used it as a source of motivation and self esteem can be very helpful in finding that motivation to keep at it, to continue to work hard enroute to the particular goal that they have.

Andy: So you said something really interesting in there that there’s a really important situation that happens when we work really, really hard on something, and then it doesn’t go well.

Tim: Yes.

Andy: Why is that such an important situation? And what about the opposite? When you don’t work hard and it doesn’t go well, or when you work hard and it does go well. And why is it specifically that, that scenario of working really hard and then having it not go out is unique?

Tim: Sure. Well, I’d say that it’s in those situations where we are really developing that sense of resilience. It’s an important life skill to know how to deal with disappointment. Because if we develop this schema where we associate that every time that we work hard everything is always going to go our way. The reality is that that is simply impractical. There will always be circumstances or luck sometimes that just doesn’t turn out in our favor. And so it’s important to know how to cope with that inevitable adversity and disappointment because adversity and disappointment are a part of any person’s path.

Tim: You can again, look at almost any successful person, and they will tell you that they had to surmount huge obstacles and keep going even when things were rough for them, even when things were not turning out for them. And that is often one of the distinguishing characteristics among the most successful people, is that ability to keep going to forge ahead, even when times were really difficult. And so if you have that ability to know how to persevere even when times are difficult, that skillset, that psychological strength that enables you to keep going, that becomes a skill set that continues to get stronger the more that you have to practice it. And that is what can propel you forward, even when things are not turning out in your favor.

Andy: I get that. One of the big topics between parents and teenagers today involves technology. And it’s a central theme of your book. A lot of people are saying, “Hey, teenagers need to get more sleep.” And the reason usually given for that is their brain is developing, the prefrontal cortex, really important. Lots of changes are happening in the brain during this time. They really need that sleep, which is all true.

Andy: But you actually point out some really interesting stuff, which I love, because I think that some of the most important things that teenagers need to know is about how sleep affects their memory. And when I talk to groups of students about alcohol, this research that you talk about in your book is like one of the most important things I think they can get out of my whole presentation, how sleep influences memory and learning. And then how alcohol in there can actually tank the entire process.

Andy: Aside from just the typical, yeah, it’s not good for your brain to not get enough sleep. What are some other problems that will arise for teenagers if they’re not getting enough sleep?

Tim: Sure. Well, as you say, I’d say that sleep is one of the most important behaviors that contributes to the overall wellbeing of teenagers. And there’s a whole host of outcomes that are associated with the amount of sleep that we get. So one of those is simply on an emotional level. So we know that when we sleep, the brain is decreasing activity in areas of the brain that could otherwise lead us to become highly reactive to things that really on any other day might not be any big deal. And yet, if we haven’t slept enough, often we are on edge. We are cranky, we are irritable, small little things will easily set us off. It’s because the brain wasn’t given enough time, the night before, to do the work that was necessary to cool down that area of the brain, that now is highly reactive to every little thing. So one is simply on an emotional level. It helps us to overlook all those small daily hassles and stay focused on our work.

Tim: Another big one is mental acuity. The reason why we often have difficulty staying on task toward our goals if we haven’t slept well, goes back to the idea that we didn’t give our brain the time that was necessary to do the work that would lead to strengthening those neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex that you mentioned that are so important for keeping us vigilant toward our work and on task toward our goals. So that’s another one.

Tim: And also the other thing that the prefrontal cortex does is it allows us to regulate our impulses. And that’s why people sometimes will make bad decisions, or they will otherwise find themselves in trouble if they haven’t gotten a good night sleep the night before. It’s because they don’t have as much willpower and as much self-discipline, which is essentially restored when we’ve had a good night sleep. So there’s a whole host of behaviors that are associated with sleep. But I would say that emotion, cognition and impulse control are among the biggest ones that can especially affect the day to day life and wellbeing of a-

About Tim Bono

A faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, Tim has won several teaching awards and thousands of students have taken his popular courses on the Psychology of Young Adulthood and the Science of Happiness. He is the author of When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness as well as an expert consultant on psychological health and happiness for a number of national media outlets.

Find Tim on Twitter.