7 Secrets of Highly Happy Families

Sharing treats, a game, a joke, or just a quiet moment together can bring you closer to your kids than ever before.


Once a month, Julie Kessel and her husband, Don, have a family Do Nothing Day at their home in Houston with their two boys, Chandler, 7, and Carter, 5. "We lounge around, have breakfast, play Yahtzee, read, watch movies and sitcoms," says Julie.

To do this, the family picks a day, usually a Sunday, so everyone can schedule around it. The day before, Julie stocks up on snacks and a few favorite family videos. She also likes to get errands and household chores done beforehand so work is off her mind. Visitors, play dates, fix-it projects, and housework are all on hold. The result? "We have one whole day to reconnect," says Julie. "The kids really like it because they have our full attention without any distractions. It's a great feeling."

Cultivating habits and activities like the Kessels do on a regular basis can boost your own family's happiness quotient. It's well worth the effort. Scientific studies show that a happy family has positive effects on health, improving blood pressure and increasing life expectancy. And the activities you share, no matter how frivolous they may seem, can actually be extremely meaningful in the long run. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 96 percent of Americans rank family as the most important thing in their lives. Building the bonds that make families strong starts with the simplest, and sometimes the silliest, of habits and rituals.

"Ultimately, the highest salary and the best car aren't fulfilling," says David Niven, author of 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004). "Loving relationships are. They are the foundation of who we are. Happiness isn't what happens to us, it's the love, connections, and support structure we have and giving of yourself unconditionally." Tap these secrets to make a happy home your top priority.

1. Put laughter on your to-do list.

Find ways to inject humor into daily life, even if it seems like an effort at first.

"The average family spends too little time engaged in humor and too much time complaining," says Mimi Doe, founder of www.spiritualparenting.com and author of Busy but Balanced (St. Martin, 2001). Instead, she says, "Tell jokes at dinner, leave a book of jokes on the kitchen counter, or tuck a funny cartoon in your child's lunchbox."

You can also initiate a family movie night and make a point to watch classic comedies on a regular basis. Look at the lighter side of household tasks, too.

"Make it fun," says Doe. "Loosen up with your kids about chores. If your teenage son always forgets to clean up the bathroom sink, write a reminder in shaving cream on the mirror. Tape a dollar bill on the bottom of a waste paper basket to give kids an incentive to empty them."

2. Make giving a family affair.

"The key is to find something fulfilling that the whole family can do," says Natalie Gahrmann, author of Succeeding as a Super Busy Parent (Infinity, 2002). Sue Bowen and her son, Jimmy, 12, of Flemington, New Jersey, raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. "We walk in the annual Light the Night Walk in honor of my late husband and Jimmy's dad, who died of Hodgkin's disease. Jimmy and I designed a banner with pictures of his dad on it. We share the role of team captain and recruit friends to walk with us, too. It's something meaningful that we do together."

Doing for others helps kids realize the world is bigger than they are and that people need their help, says Gahrmann. To get started, make a list of good deeds you could do as a family. You might include making dinner for a family with a new baby and no time to cook, inviting the new kid in school for a play date, or taking old rugs and blankets to the animal shelter.

"As hard as it might be to believe, kids long for connection with others more than another new toy or trip," says Doe. "It does feel as good to give as to get."

3. Play hide and treat.

What do lunchboxes, napkins, and sock drawers have in common? They're all places where you can hide small treats, a note, or even extra pocket money for the times when you catch your kids doing something good.

"Usually, we don't notice kids when they're being good, we just kind of expect it," says Bill Maier, psychologist in residence for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization devoted to traditional and family values. But he says, it's important to "affirm and reward them when they are kind, helpful, and cooperative. It'll steer them into more positive behavior. They're also more apt to repeat it if it's been reinforced."

Over time, noticing the good your kids do will reduce conflicts about misbehavior and make for a happier family. Remember, though, to be specific with your praise. If your son shares his toys with a friend, for example, you could give him a Matchbox car with a note that says "I'm so proud when you share your toys!" Or write a nice note pointing out something positive your child did, such as studying without being asked. If you promise your child a reward such as taking him to the mall if he cleans up his room all week, keep your word. Otherwise, says Maier, "Your child realizes it doesn't matter what he does, because you don't follow through."

Little notes are a great way to give teens positive reinforcement, says Sheila Ellison, author of How Does She Do It? 101 Life Lessons from One Mother to Another (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004). "Leave a note on the steering wheel of the car, that says, 'Have a great day!' Or if they're facing a challenge such as a big test or important game, 'I believe in you!'" Post affirmations around the house, too. "I have one on the fridge that says, 'Be the change you want to see in the world.' Parents have an effect on the kinds of things they put into their children's minds," says Ellison.

4. Ask your kids to play Chutes and Ladders.

"When you spend time with your kids, bonds are formed and communication is increased," says Terra Wellington, author of The Seven Elements to Balanced Living: A Wellness Guide (Wellington Media, 2002). "You both reap the rewards." Board games, she says are a great way to connect. "It's relationship building. Kids learn how to win and how to lose. It's analogous to life." Pick games that are less competitive, such as Chutes and Ladders and Candyland, for kids who may have a problem losing. Older kids like Trouble, Kerplunk, and Uno. Sue Bowen plays the Yu-Gi-Oh card game with son Jimmy. "He's taught me how to play and the strategy behind the game," she says.

Research suggests that if you can develop a common interest, it's a wonderful way to spend time together, says Niven. "The expectations are open and free. You're talking about serious or silly things, and you're just being together. Any activity like a game that offers you open time is a very positive thing."

5. Create new bedtime rituals for teens.

"As kids get older, it's important to create new rituals that are age-appropriate so there is a nice end to the day," says Doe. When Jimmy was young, Sue used to read to him before he went to sleep. Now that he likes the Harry Potter series, she's reading the books, too, and talking about them with her son at bedtime.

"It's a way of bonding us together," says Sue. "We discuss the plot and the characters." Jane Turner Michael and her husband, Nick, have a special routine with teens Elyssa, Adam, and Christopher. "We have dinner together and then everyone goes off in a different direction for meetings and homework," says Jane. "At 9:30, we gather again in the kitchen, reconnect, and eat a snack. Once they're in bed, I'll go in, give them a kiss, tell them I love them and that I hope they sleep well."

Many teens love hand, foot, and back rubs. "They'll be yours for 20 minutes," says Ellison. It's also a way to stay connected. "We think teenagers don't want to be touched," says Doe. "But they can feel abandoned by us as their bodies change."

6. Get out the memorabilia.

"Research shows that when we share family history, we strengthen the bond between family members," says Niven. "Kids long to belong," says Doe. "When they feel part of the tribe, it makes them feel secure and happy. They also don't need to go outside and seek connections that might be unhealthy." It doesn't have to be complicated to connect. "If you don't have time to make scrapbooks," says Gahrmann, "just put the photos in an album in order or catalogue them in a shoe box." This way you can go back and review a family vacation and relive happy memories, together.

7. Inaugurate a talking stick for your own tribe.

In Native American tribes, a talking stick was used to lend order to council meetings. Using one can bring structure and order to family meetings and empower parents who feel their kids don't listen and kids who don't feel heard.

"The underlying principle is to treat each other with kindness and respect by establishing an environment that supports it," says Gahrmann. Instead of a stick, the object in question could be a rock or even a hat, or any visual reminder that whoever has the object has a chance to talk without any danger of interruption. It helps children understand that they need to respect the speaker and wait their turn. As kids get used to the concept, you'll find that eventually you won't need a talking stick at all.

Niven agrees, saying, "Instead of assuming what a family member is thinking, you're giving them a chance to tell you." That's more important than you might think. "Happy families are open to individual differences. It provides for a comfort and a constancy of support that lasts a lifetime," he says.

Chrystle Fiedler is freelance writer based in New York.

Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, October 2004.

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