5 Habits of Happy Families
Lose Yourself in the Moment
Okay, not every moment. But research indicates that happy people focus on moments of joy: those in the present, the past, and even the ones possible in the future.
"It's a great challenge. Adults are constantly swamped by the negative," says Loyola University Chicago professor of psychology Fred Bryant, Ph.D., coauthor of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience. But it is possible to teach kids to see the rosy side of things even when there's bad news out there. How? By making a deliberate decision to focus on the good stuff. For example, when you narrate your day to your child, frame the story around the highlights. That's not to say you ignore the downsides, but instead you can explain how you handled them and tried to keep them in perspective.
You might also regularly take time to remind your kids about the good things that happened in the past, and what might happen in the future. "Before the family goes to bed each night, we talk about what we're going to dream about," says Shannon Rebolledo, a Wichita, KS, mother of three children under 5. "Usually, it ends up being dreams about things the kids really loved during the day."
Savoring the past is particularly helpful at creating happiness, says Bryant, because it lets you milk a single event. Research has shown that during these reminiscences, the brain actually reexperiences its original sensation of pleasure. Susie Rolander, a mother of three girls under age 8 in New York City, joins her family in saying thankful prayers each night. In her own, she always includes her late mom. "The girls didn't know her, but just thinking about her this way increases my happiness because it brings her into our everyday."
"There are plenty of adults who won't look back on things that are gone forever because they fear it will make them sad," says Bryant. "But we can teach our children that we can relive moments that were precious to us and, in doing so, enjoy them again."
Spread Out The Joy
Your kids may constantly bug you for things they want. But studies consistently show that having everything one desires is no recipe for happiness. In fact, researchers have found that, given a choice, people will spread out rewards rather than receiving them all at once. They intuitively go about creating the contrast we all need in order to see our good fortune more clearly.
"It's like being in California -- you don't appreciate a seventy-degree sunny day there," says Manhart. "But then you come back to Nebraska, and it is zero and gray, and you do."
Spreading out special experiences and treats provides families with a way of focusing their attention and creating the contrast that, Bryant's research indicates, brings us real happiness. It should also be good news to those parents who stay up at night worrying about not being able to give their kids those jeans they want or that expensive summer camp.
"Even if you could give your family everything, any new thing they got would mean very little," explains Bryant. "But for someone who has nothing, the smallest of treasures can be overwhelmingly wonderful."
Focus On Your Circle
In an economic time when so many are struggling to get by, it's easy to fantasize that a little more wealth or success is the key to greater joy. So perhaps there is no better time for this reminder: All the studies on the subject show that the key and consistent element in the lives of very happy people is close personal relationships. Period.
"Human beings are meant to be together," says Gregg Easterbrook, a father of three and author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. "Having good, supportive relationships is ninety percent of life."
Conversely, dissatisfaction develops when people allow those things that they incorrectly perceive to bring happiness -- things like awards, money, and even education -- to take away time spent with loved ones and helping others.
Kids often have a way of poignantly reminding you of this simple truth. Rebolledo's 5-year-old son, Raef, told her recently he couldn't wait to go on vacation to the beach. But it wasn't the sand or surf he was most looking forward to. It was the fact that neither Rebolledo nor her husband would be bringing their BlackBerrys along. "Just being with us," says Rebolledo, "that's all he really wants."
Barbara Rowley is a contributing editor to Parenting.