17 Secrets of Happy Families

Happy families share some habits that make for fulfilling conversation, productive housework, and more subdued arguments.

family drawing
Photograph by Ralph Smith, Illustration by Lizzie Olsen

Sit beside your partner when making decisions

Scientists have found that people sitting next to each other were more likely to collaborate than those sitting across or diagonally from each other.

Turn down the lights

Dim lighting can make people feel relaxed and safe, so they may be more revealing in conversations.

Connect generations

Research shows that kids who know more about the successes and failures of their kin are more resilient and better able to moderate the effects of stress.

Cushion your blows

A study from MIT, Harvard, and Yale shows that people are more flexible and accommodating when they sit on cushioned surfaces. My wife and I now have difficult conversations on the sofa, and we have family meetings at the breakfast table, which has padded seats.

Invite grandma over

Grandparents are the “ace in the hole” of humanity, says Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist. A meta-analysis of 66 studies found that mothers who have child-care help from grandmothers have less stress, and their children are more well-adjusted than those who don’t.

Play the “bad & good” game

Over dinner, each member of the family should report on a positive and a negative from the day. A growing body of research has found that by watching others (including Mom and Dad) navigate ups and downs in real time, children develop empathy and solidarity with those around them.

Adopt a soldier’s mentality

“In moments when the needs of the family conflict with your own needs, you have a choice to make,” says Jason McCarthy, a former Green Beret. “You can either turn toward or against one another.” Use conflict as a chance to show family loyalty.

Create a chore flowchart

Make three columns and label them, respectively, “Stuff to Do,” “Things in Progress,” and “Things Done.” As family members begin working on an item, they move it from the first to the second column, and so on. “I guarantee you’ll get twice as much done,” says Jeff Sutherland, coauthor of the Agile Manifesto.

Reject rigidity

Research shows you have to be flexible, whether with the strategy you use to get everyone out the door in the morning or with the techniques you use to discipline, entertain, or inspire your family.

Use sports for good

Parents have the most important job when it comes to a child’s experience with sports, says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance. After the game, avoid deconstructing your child’s mistakes. “Say, ‘You didn’t get a hit, but I think that you’re the kind of person who doesn’t give up easily,’ ” says Thompson.

Gather regularly

“Family meetings are a regularly scheduled time to draw attention to specific behaviors,” says David Starr, author of the report Agile Practices for Families. If you don’t have a safe environment to discuss problems, any plan to improve your family will go nowhere.”

Mirror each other during fights

Studies have shown that people in power positions—those sitting higher than their partners, putting their feet up, or lacing their fingers behind their necks—have increased feelings of superiority, while people in lower-power poses, such as sitting lower, are defensive and resentful.

Content continues below ad

Don’t roll your eyes

Indiana researchers spent years monitoring the twitching of noses, raising of eyebrows, and pursing of lips during marital spats. They checked back with the couples four years later and determined that above all other gestures, eye rolling predicted marital tension.

Circle the furniture

In the 1950s, a British psychiatrist noticed that patients interacted more socially when they sat facing one another instead of side by side. The same rule can apply to families. If you want to have more communal family gatherings, sit in an O, not an L or a V.

Stop saying “you”

Use we instead: “We have to get better at communicating” will diffuse a fight quicker than “You never tell me what’s wrong,” says James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas and the author of The Secret Lives of Pronouns.

Avoid difficult discussions from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Two Chicago psychologists determined that this two-hour window is the most stressful time of day, as parents are coming off tension-filled workdays, kids are tired, and family members are converging at home.

Limit arguments to three minutes

John Gottman of the University of Washington found that the most important points in any argument can be found in the first three minutes. After that, he says, people often repeat themselves at higher decibels.

The Secrets of Happy Families, Copyright © 2014 by Bruce Feiler, is published by William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., harpercollins.com.

What are your secrets to having a happier family?

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

how we use your e-mail
We will use your email address to send you this newsletter. For more information please read our privacy policy.