IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The science of how families get, and stay, happy

Happy families 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.
/ Source: Parenting

Happy families 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.

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, Mont., 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.

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., co-author 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, Kan., mother of three children under 5. "Usually, it ends up being dreams about things the kids really loved during the day."

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."

Barbara Rowley is a contributing editor to Parenting.

To read more about the science behind happy families, visit