Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Jacoba Urist

Keri Matthews is one of those super moms -- a computer science professor who takes her two kids, ages 7 and 5, on educational trips to Europe every summer. But she noticed that when she asked what they enjoyed in some of the world’s most jet-setting cities, they always mentioned the same sort of things they could’ve seen at home: “the spinny things” at a local playground, a chance meeting with a ladybug on the street, and -- one that’s sure to melt any parent’s heart into a puddle of mush -- all the “snuggle time” with Mom and Dad.

None of this surprises Ramon Zabriskie, an expert in “recreational management” at Brigham Young’s Marriot School who studies how families interact in their downtime. In a new article in the journal Leisure Sciences, he describes how he found that ordinary togetherness is the secret to a happy family.

Forget the big pricey vacation you’ve been planning (and stressing about!). It’s really not as important to your family as you think.

In fact, researchers found that the single biggest predictor for a strong family unit was having a father present for those relatively cheap home-based activities like watching TV and playing board games together. And while the research team surveyed dads and children, ages 11 to 15, Professor Zabriskie says he believes if they did another study looking at mothers, the results would be very similar.

“I’ve interviewed 3-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 15- and 24-year-olds,” Zabriskie says. “And no matter what age, it’s these everyday, at–home activities as a family that matter the most.”

The study focused on two types of family behaviors. “Core activities” are daily rituals with our kids that don’t cost much, like shooting hoops in the driveway or having a bath time routine. At the other end of the spectrum, what the researchers call “balance activities,” are out-of-the-ordinary family outings that take more resources (read: time, money) like a special camping trip or that week sightseeing in Europe.

The conclusion: The more common leisure activities were much more important than big-ticket events when it came to predicting families with the most cohesion.

So does that mean the happiest families scrap the special summer vacation? Absolutely not, says Lydia Buswell, a mom and co-author of the Leisure Sciences article. She first came up with the idea for this study as a graduate student in 2008.

“My father wasn’t around much,” she tells TODAY Moms. “And I was inspired to ask, would it really have mattered to the family as a whole if he’d been there on a daily basis?”

Her research answers with a resounding yes — what happens at home makes all the difference — and the big events, like the beach getaway you’ve booked months in advance, matters a whole lot less than everyone thinks.

But that doesn’t mean balance activities are worthless. On the contrary, they’re an important part of strong families — as long as you’ve already laid the groundwork for that everyday closeness.

Tara Cook-Littman, a mother of three and a food policy advocate, learned early on that pricier places aren’t better when it comes to kids and qualify time. On a trip to Washington, D.C., she and her husband decided to save money on the hotel.

“I was kind of miserable. The rooms were a little dirty, and very crowded, and incredibly old,” she says. “But it was the kids’ favorite place because there was a Koi pond. Now, every time we go to a fancy resort, they ask if there’s a Koi pond. It’s become a family joke.”

It turns out, those credit card ads have been right all along. You can buy a lot of stuff for your kids at a hotel gift shop or in the Downtown Disney District, but the time you spend with them really is priceless.

Jacoba Urist is a lawyer, writer and mom in New York City. Her articles have appeared on MSN Money, The Atlantic & Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Her son's favorite part of their family vacation to Puerto Rico was the big Pop Tart treat from the gas station mini-mart. Follow her on twitter: @Thehappiestpare.

Related stories:

What do dads want? A little respect

Parents on a plane: You do have rights

Working on our family bucket list

You want me to sign what?! The rise of playdate waivers

Video: Dr. Harvey Karp on surviving travel with toddlers