How do we build happier families?

I've been thinking about this question and discussing it with my own family since I ran across excerpts from a new book this week titled The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Marriage, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More (2013, published by William Morrow).

The author, Bruce Feiler, has some good ideas, and even backs them up with some recent research about families, children, and couples where he can. Here are some of his ideas that rang true with me as a family therapist:

1. Happier families talk. They communicate with each other.
2. Happier couples, and families, celebrate each other's accomplishments. 
3. Healthier families adapt to changes. Change happens. You might as well embrace it!
4. Happier families try. They put time and effort into making family a top priority.

5. Happier families do their best to eat dinner together as often as possible. If not dinner, then breakfast, or a snack, or something else is almost as good. Just do something! Feiler cites one cross-cultural study showing the US ranking 23rd out of 25 countries when it comes to eating meals together.

The article about Feiler’s book got me thinking about my own observations and reflections about other ways of helping create a happier life as a family:

1. No family, just like no individual, can be happy all the time. We need to be realistic about our expectations that families are made up of individuals whose needs will differ at times. Conflicts will occur. Sibling rivalry is normal. We need to be able to disagree respectfully, compromise at times, and make repairs when needed.

 2. Mutual respect is key, between the adults, between the children and adults, and between the children. We need to make room for individual differences.
3. Look for connecting points. Every week, we need to work some into our busy schedules. These include hugging goodbye or hello, having fun together in a shared activity, date nights, family game night, working on projects together, bedtime rituals, shared meals, playing sports together, cooking together, doing outdoor activities together, and making check-in points with each other.
4. Encourage each other. Most adults and children get far more critical comments each day than positive ones. Happy families make a point to express what they see in each other's behaviors that they like. This is known as ‘catching your loved ones being good.’
5. Happy families come in different shapes and sizes. Not all happy families have two adults. There can still be a decision to be a happy family even after the loss of parent by death or after divorce. I’ve seen it happen. It’s a decision and a choice. Happy families focus on being resilient. In fact, this makes you a good role model for your children, to be happy anyway, and try to live the best life you can, despite challenges.

6. Loyalty. Happier families have each other’s back, and go direct with problems to the person they have the problem with, rather than to someone else.

7. Credibility. In happier families, people keep their commitments. They do what they say they are going to do. The adults can be counted on, both by each other, and by the children. 

8. There are clear rules, consistently enforced. There is structure, but also some flexibility within that structure. The adults are the architects of the family. The children are not in charge.

9. Mix it up and have some high-energy fun together. It might not be football, like the Kennedy clan, but doing some high-energy activity together is bonding.

10. Everyone takes out their own stress/trash. Every adult needs to learn how to deal with their own stress and not bring it home to take it out on the family. Children and teens need to be taught how to do the same. Just like we need to teach our children to clean up after themselves, and not leave messes around the house for others to clean up, think of stress in the same way. Do it yourself.

11. Make it okay to ask for help.

12. Don't be so child-focused that the adults ignore each other. It’s helpful for children to realize that there are other needs in the family besides their own.

13. Apologize when you are wrong. This makes it easier for your children to do the same.

14. Get outside yourselves. Families are happier when they volunteer, or in some way become aware of the needs of others. It puts things in perspective.
15. Warm it up. Express affection with touch, hugs, a kiss, or a verbal or written “I love you” as often as possible.

If these are some of the secrets of happy families, let’s share them! If your family life isn't happy, not much else matters.