We all long for happiness and harmony in the family – but what really makes for a happier family? We’ve looked at the research and identified eight attributes of happy families. They’re surprisingly simple to integrate into your family life.
According to Harry Benson, communications director of the Marriage Foundation and co-author of What Mums Want (and Dads Need to Know), “Happy wife, happy life is a maxim that is backed by research and has saved my own marriage.”
In his book, which he wrote with his wife Kate, 300 mothers were surveyed, and indicated that friendship, being interested in me, interested in the children and being kind were the main qualities they wanted from their husbands. “And when Mum is happy, the rest of the family tend to be happy. This is much less true for dads,” he says.
Harry says that for marriages to be happy, dads should prioritise their wives’ happiness, and the rest of the family’s happiness will follow suit.
The importance of the family supper (or lunch or breakfast) cannot be overstated. There’s a vital element of ritual in coming together daily to share a meal, and it also creates a space in which each person’s contributions can be expressed and experiences can be discussed.
Anne Fisher, professor at Harvard Medical School and family therapist says, “I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me.”
She says this is because “sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit,” and that studies have shown that regular family dinners lower a host of high-risk teenage behaviours including smoking, binge drinking, drug use, violence school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity.
The meal doesn’t have to be a formal one around a dining room table – sitting together in the garden at dinner time is just as much of a positive family experience. Try to create an atmosphere of warmth and engagement and make sure that the TV is off!
In a happy family, every person has a role to play. It is important to acknowledge the bigger accomplishments of your children, partners and extended family, but even more important is to let them know that you appreciate them for who they really are.
Make a point of speaking about the things that you like about your family members. “You always know just the right thing to say,” or “I feel calmer after I’ve spoken to you,” or “You see the world in such a unique way,” are comments that will be cherished by your loved ones. Don’t assume they know how you feel.
Compliment and thank people for what they do for making family life smoother and easier, whether it’s the kids setting the table, or your partner making supper for you after a long day. When people feel appreciated rather than put upon, they’re much more keen to get involved.
“How was your day?”
Any parent who has gone through the teenage years knows that communication doesn’t always come easily. It may feel like a struggle sometimes, but it’s important that the channels of communication remain open.
Some tips for keeping up the communication:
- Respond without rushing to judgement.
- Teach your kids that it’s OK to disagree, but that they (and you) shouldn’t resort to shouting or blaming.
- Talk about appropriate way to deal with conflict and unhappiness – whether it’s that you never go to bed without saying sorry; or you’ll always let the other person finish speaking; or you’ll always remind them that you love them, no matter what they’ve done.
While the focus of this story is on the happiness of the collective family, at the same time it is important for each individual to work towards their own happiness as well. Each person needs to set goals and pursue their own aspirations, and other family members need to support them in their endeavours. The bigger the family, the more important it is to check in with each member.
Every generation evolves and reinvents the family, but shared history and rituals are deeply bonding. Barbara Fiese, a psychologist at Syracuse University has spent 50 years researching family routines and rituals and has concluded that rituals are extremely important to the organisation of family life and offer stability during stressful times. They even found that family rituals could be linked with marital satisfaction, personal identity, health in children, academic achievement and closer family bonds.
If there are no obvious routines or rituals in your family, start creating them. Whether they are religious or personal, you will find that children cling to the repetition of significant moments, whether it’s a Friday evening dinner at the local Italian restaurant, or an annual Christmas cake bake-off.
It is very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day routine of life – lifts, school, work, extramurals, homework, dinner, bath, bed, repeat. You’re spending time with your family members, but it doesn’t necessarily amount to quality time. How much bonding are you really doing while waiting impatiently at a traffic light?
If you find that you are short on focused family time, a great way to make good use of it is to play together – whether it’s kicking a ball around in the park or garden, or playing family-friendly games like board or card games, or just connecting with your shared humour. According to Dr Sylvia Rimm, of the Family Achievement Clinic, “the security that family play provides to children and the manner in which family fun alleviates tension are only the beginnings of the perks of playing board games.”
In happy families, the members see the family as something worthwhile and worth investing time in. This isn’t to say that no one should have outside interests or friends; only that, on some level, there is a sense that family comes first.
By using the suggestions we’ve already outlined, you can build a sense that family is important, it’s worth working on, and it will support you in a crisis.
With just a little focus on these areas of family life, you will lay the foundations for interactions that you enjoy. You’ll probably find that you do a lot of these things anyway, so it can be about simply turning up the volume or remembering to make the time.
Remember that your family is a constantly changing thing, so enjoy each day that you spend with your loved ones and enjoy the journey as your family expands, changes and grows.