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Ponder this interesting fact: children laugh on average three hundred times per day, while the average adult laughs only fifteen times.

What accounts for this difference? Do we lose our sense of humour as we grow? Do our life experiences leave us jaded? Or is the wonder of childhood just that wonderful? Probably best to get those answers from the experts – ask a child! In the meantime, I’ll try to shed some light on how to create an environment that fosters an easy spirit and a ready laugh, and why it’s important to do so.

Happiness and life satisfaction are indicators of mental health. Mental health is an important subject all on its own, but its meaning multiplies when you consider the well-established link between mental and physical health. This relationship is multidirectional and complex.

To simplify matters, let’s examine the relationship with a single aspect of mental health: the social environment. A positive social environment is one where individuals are respectful of themselves and others. It encompasses social connections, respect for culture, equity, social justice, and personal dignity. It can influence other aspects of mental health such as resiliency and self-esteem, and impacts health behaviours and physical health.

Take for example the issue of adolescent tobacco use, a prevalent health concern. It is known that among the personal factors influencing cigarette usage, an adolescent’s knowledge of the health consequences of smoking is a poor predictor. The most predictive factors are linked to aspects of the perceived social environment (social image, bonding with peers, etc.)

By promoting a positive social environment, we as parents, teachers, coaches, and role models can affect a broad range of health behaviours such as nutritional choices, physical activity participation, personal safety practices, and substance use (to name a few). These behaviours impact physical health and feedback to the state of mental health as well. You can see that interventions targeting a positive social environment are both effective and warranted.

So how is it done? Foster a positive social environment for children where they live, learn, and play with the following tips:

  • Build relationships; expose children to new opportunities with people of all ages. Teach friendship skills such as sharing and listening.
  • Work on self respect; praise and complement children on what they do well. Reward positive behaviour and encourage them to recognize and value the things they like about themselves.
  • Support cultural diversity; expose children to a variety of cultural experiences, teach them to understand and accept differences.
  • Promote equity; give children the opportunity to offer or accept help through charity.
  • Teach critical thinking; offer children choices and encourage lateral thought.

With these simple tasks, you can be a leader in building a positive social environment for children, but I don’t mean to suggest that this is a one way street. The contribution  kids make to the social environment with their abundant joy cannot be overlooked. Therefore, the most important tip of all is follow their lead, and to learn to laugh again. I’m serious.

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Sonya Brown
Sonya Brown, B.Kin, is a Health Promotion Coordinator and works with School Divisions in Southeastern Alberta to improve healthy eating, active living and positive mental health initiatives and policies. Her passion is building healthy school communities where children and youth can live happy, healthy lives.