5 Habits of Happy Families
In the hubbub of life with kids, it's amazing how fragile happiness can seem. One minute everyone is enjoying breakfast together, and the next the orange juice is toppled and the drawing is ruined and nobody wants the pancakes anymore. Blown out of proportion by a cranky preschooler, sulking tween, or grudge-holding parent, a single mishap can expand into a gloom that lasts for hours.
This is why the spate of recent research into the actual science of happiness caught my attention. Juice puddles (and far worse) will always be with us, but, it turns out, they have little to do with how truly content a family is. Instead, as Tolstoy said, happy families actually are all alike -- at least in that they practice common habits that help inoculate them against setbacks large and small. The good news for the rest of us? Copying those might make us happier, too.
Give Thanks -- No Matter What
Research consistently finds that regularly expressing gratitude is good for our overall well-being: People who do so are healthier, more successful at reaching their goals, more optimistic, and more inclined to help others. But what if your family is struggling, say with a job loss, and no one is feeling like they have much to be thankful for?
"There's nothing wrong with faking it," says Robert Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of the book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. "It doesn't have to be spontaneous or natural. Act grateful, and you'll soon start feeling it."
This strategy is based on a well-known psychological fact: Human brains don't like to behave and feel in opposition. That's why your kids will struggle through the simple exercise of trying to smile while saying something mean, or attempting to frown while saying "I love you." Their expressions will want to follow their words.
For those of us whose natural tendency is to see the glass as half empty, the fact that our brain wants to align with our actions provides some support on the way to happiness. During your week, take time to identify some little positive, and then give thanks -- to the person responsible, to yourself, to the universe or your God. Not only will you feel better, but it'll set a good example for your kids. "If we stand around waiting for a feeling to move us, we may never get going," says Emmons. "But choosing to act grateful for what we have is something we can all do."
At home, encourage your kids to establish a habit of acknowledging all the good in life and in other people. Deliberate, regular practice helps: Each month, ask them to send thank-yous to people who have been kind, helpful, or generous, for example. Make those into creative fun, rather than a chore, by suggesting they send them in the form of a photo, video, or drawing. And, of course, count your blessings whenever your family has time together, whether at breakfast, dinner, bedtime, or even in the car.
Seek Out Satisfaction in Your Choices
This advice goes to the heart of a key finding of happiness research: It's important to learn to be content with how our decisions turn out. My children's preschool teacher, Joyce Drolette of Bozeman, MT, sent the girls home repeating what turns out to be a powerful mantra for happiness: "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit."
"I've never met a parent who will say she only wants what's 'good enough' for her kids," says Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, and author of the book The Paradox of Choice. "But if happiness is your goal, that's exactly where you need to aim."
Schwartz's research shows that for many people, having multiple options and aspiring for the very best among them causes far more pain than gain. Schwartz calls these people "maximizers," and we all know them: They are the ones who can't enjoy the balcony at their beach hotel because they see a better balcony around the corner. In fact, maximizers may never even get down to the shore at all. They are so consumed with making the "right" and best choices that they end up paralyzed, unable to decide if they should ask for the pool view or the beach view. For every one of them, though, there is what Schwartz calls a "satisficer": someone totally at peace with her balcony, who goes out there, sits back, and enjoys the view. She knows she chose this hotel at this rate and will relish the fact that she has a few days to escape.
If you want happiness, Schwartz's research strongly advises, try to be a satisficer -- and teach your kid to be one, too. "Explicit lessons are the least important ones," says Schwartz, a father of two and a grandfather. Most kids won't learn the behavior simply by being told that's how they should act. "The most important thing you can do is to model the behavior for your child."
In a practical sense, says Schwartz, this means making a deliberate practice of being personally and publicly satisfied with your own decisions and not second-guessing yourself or comparing yourself to others. This may not be your nature, and you might not always succeed, but trying is half the battle. If you find yourself roiling inside, take a walk, read a book, anything that will refocus your mind.
Limiting your family's selection is another proven tactic for making dissatisfaction and regret less likely, says Schwartz. It can help contain that always ultimately fruitless search for the optimal experience.
Nick Manhart, a father of four children under 6, says he and his wife, Carolyn, often present their kids with a deliberately scaled-down menu of options -- whether in their choice of ice cream or which swimming pool to go to.
"We do this to reinforce the concept of finding satisfaction in what is available," says the Omaha, NE, dad. "My six-year-old would have cake and then want ice cream and then have both and still not be happy. Offering less makes each experience more special, and ends up giving him more joy."