Happiness varies depending on personal circumstances. But why are some families more resilient and happier despite the obstacles life throws their way? Here are simple secrets of happy families.
1. They hang out together. Happy families feel a strong sense of connection with each other. According to child-family therapist Jennifer Jackson-Rice, LSCSW/LSCW, real connection takes as little as five minutes a day. Sit next to each other during homework time, cook together, read at bedtime, and chat while driving to activities. Create calmer, more cheerful mornings by prepping the night before or getting yourself up a little earlier.
"That connection in the first part of the day can carry kids throughout the day," Jackson-Rice says.
Michelle Hon, a mom of two boys, ages 4 and 2, agrees. She says that the first 30 minutes in the morning and the last 30 minutes before bedtime help her family feel grounded, calm and loved. "We do a lot of snuggles and cuddles in the morning, and we try not to make that a rushed time in our home," Hon says. In the evening, she and her husband Michael stick to a bedtime routine, which includes reading books with their sons and quietly reflecting on the day.
2. They cheer for each other. Celebrate your kids' interests and successes by acknowledging their efforts rather than zeroing in on what went wrong:
"I loved watching you play."
"I like how you colored this so neatly!"
"Great job on your test. I can tell you really concentrated."
"When we praise our children, self-esteem goes up. When self-esteem is high, connection is good, behaviors are good," Jackson-Rice says.
3. They seek fulfillment. While material items like the latest electronics, designer jeans and trendy toys may bring fleeting joy, they won't deliver lasting contentment.
"I don't think we can teach our kids to be happy if we're looking to external sources to feed that emotion," says Cati Winkel, owner of The Empowered Parent Coach. That includes looking to others for validation of self-worth, which can result in behaviors like people-pleasing or obsessing over likes on social media.
"This is where we get a lot of shame. People become really unhappy because they have unrealistic expectations to live up to," Winkel says.
Research suggests that children who grow up to be happy adults are encouraged early on to engage in activities they enjoy and that help develop their strengths. Foster their innate sense of curiosity and explore a variety of activities with your kids, ranging from hobbies to volunteer work. The intrinsic rewards of participating in activities that deliver personal gratification contribute to positive self-esteem and confidence.
4. They eat together. Multiple research studies show that eating dinner together can lower the incidence of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression. Kids who dine with their parents are more likely to have higher grade point averages, higher self-esteem and even stronger vocabularies. If possible, turn off the TV and put aside electronics to be in the moment around the dinner table with your family.
"Sometimes we forget that life needs to be simple. It's OK to sit around the table and have dinner together. In the quest for bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, we forget to simply be still," Jackson-Rice says. "We forget to simply connect...to be with our kids."
5. They show affection. Families today face plenty of stress. One simple antidote is to hug more.
"An eight-second hug is one of the best ways to give and get self-care," Winkel says. "An eight-second hug releases oxytocin and feel-good, stress-relieving hormones. Hug your babies. Hug your kids. Hug your partner."
Hon's youngsters show affection for people who visit them by blowing kisses and waving goodbye when it's time for visitors to depart. "From an adult perspective, I know we're expressing gratitude and making people feel loved and valued; that makes me really happy," Hon says. "There's nothing like getting kisses blown to you from a 2-year-old!"
6. They goof off. Play and laugh together. "Then, your kids get to experience you as human," Winkel says. Sing together in the car, make up zany songs when it's time to brush teeth, exchange riddles or jokes, jam to funky music in your living room, or make a funny face to defuse a tense situation.
Manage power struggles playfully. Is your preschooler refusing to get dressed? Respond by dramatically trying to put their clothes on. "It helps them lighten up a little bit. We don't have to be serious all of the time," Winkel says.
Also, follow your child's lead. Play dolls, Legos or craft together. If your child likes to ride bikes, explore new trails together. Schedule a family board game night or play video games together.
7. They create community. Not all parents can rely on family to provide positive emotional and practical support. In that case, focus on building friendships through your neighborhood, church or your child's school. The Hons rely on a family of "adopted" aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas to help them with their youngsters, which also nurtures their marriage.
"My kids go to the zoo all the time with a little set of aunties we have," Hon says. "That's their thing. That allows my husband and I to have quiet time in our house or quality time out."
8. They honor emotions. Empathize with your child when they're upset, listen and validate their feelings and verbally label their emotions. Avoid taking your child's behavior personally or rushing to fix their problems. Given the opportunity, kids can often peacefully problem-solve and negotiate with siblings and playmates without parental interference.
According to relationship expert John Gottman, kids who learn to self-soothe move through negative emotions faster. These same kids also tend to form stronger friendships, which is another key to long-term happiness.
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two boys. Christa's latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.
Published March 2018