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Top MD Shares the Surprising Secret to Lifelong Joy: Unleashing Your Inner Child

Discover how bath time, story hour and more toddler 'tools of the trade' will make you happier and healthier

Whether they’re transforming a humble twig into a magic wand with the power of their imagination or asking questions as simple as they are profound, toddlers are mini philosophers, and their chosen area of study is… everything. They approach the world with a sense of childlike joy that can inspire us all to be happier and healthier, observes Hasan Merali, M.D., pediatric emergency medicine doctor and author of Sleep Well, Take Risks, Squish the Peas: Secrets from the Science of Toddlers for a Happier, More Successful Way of Life.

“A lot of what toddlers are doing — like constantly learning and building relationships — maps onto adult wellness perfectly and can help us reduce stress, become more resilient and make deeper connections,” he says. It’s not our fault we lose a little of that “joie de tot” fairy dust as we get older, because our brains are designed to create neural shortcuts for greater efficiency. Trouble is what we gain in pattern recognition, we tend to lose in novelty-seeking and risk-taking, two skills our young mentors have down pat.

What do toddlers know that we don’t?

“Toddlers are unafraid,” declares leading child development psychologist Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of Raising Resilience. “They see a flower and instead of thinking, ‘Could this be thorny?’ they march right up to it, touch and smell it —they’re always on the move because that’s part of discovery and their lack of fear motivates them,” Klein says, adding that we can take inspiration from their boldness, whether that means jumping on a trampoline or taking a more metaphorical leap of faith by stepping out of our comfort zone. (See how curiosity boosts happiness, too.)

In short, a toddler’s world is teeming with possibilities — and there are easy, study-backed ways for us to recapture that wonder and unleash our childlike joy. Read on for eight ways to rekindke the wisdom we all had as youngsters and savor the rewards of a more fun, awe-filled life at any age.

1. Cheer yourself on — out loud!

While we adults are all too good at beating ourselves up, toddlers are mercifully devoid of self-criticism and intuitively use a skill proven to boost confidence: positive self-talk. “They do it out loud, and it’s quite sweet,” says Dr. Merali. “I remember a patient’s little 3-year-old sister was learning how to use safety scissors, and she would coach herself, ‘Emily, stay in the lines; you’ve got it.’” Toddlers may not yet be old enough to read research papers, but they’re doing exactly what the experts advise: A study in Scientific Reports shows that third-person self-talk dials down activity in the region of the brain responsible for rumination by creating psychological distance between us and the task at hand. When we use our name (“Sarah, you can do it!”), it’s as if a friend is gently reassuring us.

2. Sharpen focus with (grown-up) play

Whether they’re turning a side of peas into a leaning tower of Pea-sa or creating a finger-paint masterpiece, toddlers “incorporate play into every aspect of their lives,” says Dr. Merali. And we would do well to emulate them. In one of his favorite studies, researchers placed whimsical objects, like foam dart guns and stick-on mustaches, on a table ahead of a meeting. Study participants who were merely exposed to the toys were more open to new ideas than their peers.

Another less well-known but just as fascinating benefit of play: it helps regulate emotions and increase “executive function” or higher reasoning skills, adds Klein. “In the same way that you feel calmer after going for a run or exerting yourself, you’re able to focus better after taking a break to play.” Whether you place a swinging ball pendulum on your desk at work or let loose with a hula hoop on the weekend, enjoying a little more playtime is probably the most, well, adult thing you can do to increase your happiness.

mature woman hula hoops, as she recaptures the joy of being a child again

3. Boost recall with story hour

Toddlers are still so new to the written word, they can’t help but savor every syllable as we read to them. We adults, on the other hand, enjoy less and less story time as we get older, notes Dr. Merali. That’s a pity because of how protective reading is against cognitive decline. In fact, a study in Neurology showed that older adults who engaged in mentally stimulating activities, like reading and writing, over their lifetime showed 30% less memory loss than their peers, and slashed their risk of dementia.

What can we learn from the littlest literature buffs? The importance of slowing down. “While we tend to skim, a three-year-old will ask questions and point out connections between characters,” says Dr. Merali. Indeed, deep reading — taking our time and reflecting as we go — is shown to spark activity in more regions of the brain. “Give yourself a block of undistracted time, when you’re focused solely on reading, rather than on getting though a certain number of pages,” he advises. A common request his 3-year-old makes when he finishes reading to her? “Again!” Revisiting your favorite books strengthens neural connections and lets you discover fresh insights.

Woman relaxes with a book as she recaptures the carefree joy of being a child again

4. Solve problems by throwing tantrums

Though some might say they have an unfair advantage because they’re closer to the ground, toddlers are much better than adults at bouncing back. “If their block tower falls down, they may get upset, but they go ahead and rebuild it,” says Klein, noting that part of this resilience stems from the fact that they don’t hide their emotions. The release they get from crying or throwing a tantrum paves the way for problem-solving. We can do the same by accepting when something goes awry instead of trying to suppress negative feelings. “If you’re facing a challenge, you might tell yourself, ‘This stinks; it isn’t what I anticipated, but here’s what I do have power over,’” says Klein. Acknowledging what you can’t control lets you zero in on what you can.

5. Melt stress by laughing it out

Anyone who’s been around toddlers knows they’re comedy gold and see humor in places we tend to overlook. “I can put a cup on my head and my 3-year-old will laugh because she knows it’s silly,” says Dr. Merali. Follow his little one’s example and give yourself permission to feel that childlike joy and laugh at the seriously silly. A good guffaw lowers blood pressure and bolsters immunity, and a recent study revealed that just looking at amusing memes was enough to sink stress and negative emotions.

For more holistic humor therapy, Dr. Merali suggests laughter yoga, simple exercises that combine deep breathing with simulated giggles. Turns out faux chuckles boost mood significantly because our brain can’t tell the difference between them and the real thing. For an easy laughter yoga how-to, check out the video below!

6. Sleep deeper with bath time

“If there’s one thing we can do to make our lives better, it’s improve our sleep,” declares Dr. Merali, explaining that quality shut-eye unleashes a cascade of benefits, reducing the risk of depression, diabetes and obesity. You may be surprised that borrowing a simple toddler to-do will help you drift off faster: “Take a hot bath 1 to 2 hours before bed for as little as 10 minutes,” he says. The warm water dilates blood vessels, allowing heat to escape the body so that you can cool down and (finally!) fall asleep. (Discover more ways to drift off to dreamland.)

Woman happily relaxes in bathtub before bed, feeling happy and carefree as a child

7. Build bonds by sharing your ‘crackers’

In the ER, Dr. Merali often has his young patients stop eating for several hours while he runs blood work. “Then, when everything is okay, I tell them they can eat. We’ll give them a few crackers, and at that moment, even when they’re still hungry, amazingly, they can detect I too haven’t eaten and will offer me a cracker,” he marvels. More than a heart-melting anecdote, his experience exemplifies the power of empathy. The best analogue to this “cracker generosity” in our adult context might just be the benefits of volunteering. Studies show sharing your time a few times a week deepens social connections, boosts childlike joy and leads to greater longevity.

8. Reap more childlike joy with greater curiosity

Let toddlers’ “Why is the sky blue?” way of looking at the world inspire you to adopt a more questioning mindset. Curiosity, after all, spurs the release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine. Consider challenging yourself to learn something new, from pickleball to cake decorating or watercolor painting. Cultivating a growth mindset — exploring for its own sake rather than to achieve a specific goal — is proven to increase resilience and self-efficacy.

To flex your curiosity muscles even further, don’t be afraid to ask people more meaningful questions, like, “What’s one thing you’re most proud of accomplishing this year?” Or “If the sky were the limit, what would you most love to do?” We consistently underestimate how much acquaintances enjoy the back-and-forth of deeper conversations. That’s because the childlike joy of curiosity — as with all toddler wisdom — is contagious.

Learn more ways to boost your happiness:

How Nature Can Boost Your Happiness: 4 Easy Ways to Reap More Joy

Engaging in This Simple Activity Can Help Boost Your Happiness

30 Journal Prompts That Boost Bliss, Slash Stress and Ease Anxiety — In Minutes!

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