Relative Happiness

Your family may not be storybook, but you can cheer up the house by breaking bread, finding fun, and following a few proven plotlines.

By Amy Rosenberg, published July 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

When I was a child, I loved the All-of-a-Kind Family books. Five sisters sharing a bedroom in a small New York apartment at the turn of the last century—what could be more fun? To me, growing up in the suburbs with an older brother with whom I was never very close, and with parents who were active in numerous clubs and organizations that often kept them out of the house, the idea of a large family doing things together was extremely appealing. I envied even a housecleaning scene in which the girls' mother hid buttons for them to find as they dusted the living room. Everything was tackled with team spirit, and so everything—even the chores—seemed like play. The family possessed an infectious energy that you couldn't help but absorb through the books' pages. Simply put, they were happy.

Of course, the current era demands a different kind of family life. You and your partner may both be working long hours while staying electronically tethered to the office afterward. Your kids, too, are probably deep into their devices. On the weekends, homework—your kids' or your own—takes over, and errands swallow up whatever time is left. Then, when you finally manage to corral the whole clan for some quality time together, someone is too exhausted to enjoy it, someone else resents the forced fun, and no one really knows how to talk to anyone else.

It's hard to feel in control when you're busy managing the daily scramble. But you should at least be cognizant of the power you have to set the tone of your home, even if it's most often set by default, by all those electronic interferences. For starters, you can impose limits on interruptions and distractions. And then, on top of that, you can consciously decide to do what came naturally to the All-of-a-Kind Family, one that constantly shared adventures, despite being poor. Because they were steeped in Jewish culture, they adhered to family rituals that further increased warmth and closeness. Happiness wasn't their goal; it was a by-product of their lifestyle.

Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion. This may or may not be true, but happy families share certain behaviors and that unhappy ones can change. Examining what works for others might help you figure out ways to start increasing the levels of joy among your own clan.

A truly happy family supports and encourages the growth of each of its members. Reaching that ideal state requires the group to respect one another's space while simultaneously fostering togetherness. Such a family paradoxically provides predictable comfort and dramatic highs and lows, both of which come from caring deeply for the people under your own roof.

Communicate Well and Often

Catie and Kevin O'Keefe, a couple in their late 50s who live in Washington, D.C., where they raised their three children, swear that effective communication is the key. When their kids, now 26, 23, and 19, were younger, Catie and Kevin (who, incidentally, own a communications company together) emphasized the importance of interacting with one another. "We ate dinner together every night," says Kevin. "That was a given. We asked each other, 'What did you do today?' We had discussions about everyday kinds of things. It brought us closer together."

Barbara Fiese, a psychologist who studies family routines and health at Syracuse University, finds that "eating together helps open up the lines of communication. Concerns leak out, and it becomes an opportunity to solve problems as a team."

The Landsgaards, a large clan living in a small town in Mississippi, also insist on eating together—no easy feat with 6 children ranging in age from 3 to 10 years old. "Everyone feels free to express themselves around the table," says Kristen Landsgaard, mother of the family, "even the babies. I homeschool the older kids, so I have breakfast and lunch with all of them, and my husband always joins us for dinner. We all connect that way."

For Naomi Pabst and Don Daly, who live in lower Manhattan with their 3 children-Anatola, 11, Ian, 4, and Ariana, 1- one-on-one time with each child is as crucial as group sessions. "Maintaining five different schedules in a chaotic city means we really have to take the opportunity to have one-on-one time when it arises," Naomi says. "We have to make the in-between moments count." She often has her most heartfelt conversations with her elder daughter while walking with her from one activity to another.

The Pabst-Daly Family photo

The Pabst-Daly Family- New York, NY: Don Daly and Naomi Pabst with their children, Anatola, 11; Ian, 4; and Ariana, 1.

The O'Keefes also encouraged their kids to verbally resolve conflicts. "We let our kids talk things out among themselves," Kevin explains. And when talking was hard, they found other ways. "Our middle child always found it easier to write letters than to speak. When she was a teenager and we set a curfew for her, she disagreed with our rules. She wrote us a letter that made a great argument for a later curfew, and we changed our minds."

The letter episode demonstrates one of the most important aspects of communication in any relationship: listening with an open mind and letting each person communicate in his or her own way. It's tempting, as a parent trying to maintain a sense of authority or avoid unwanted precedents, to set hard and fast rules and stick to them unwaveringly. But truly understanding others' points of view is crucial. As clinical psychologist and family dynamics expert Ellen Weber Libby points out, "You have to have confidence that other family members, even kids, have healthy instincts about what they need for themselves."

"For us," Kevin says, "it was about respect. We were able to communicate well with our kids because we respected them as individuals, and they, in turn, respected us. Because we listened to them and told them exactly what we expected of them, they didn't want to disappoint us."

Now that their children are older and living away from home, daily dinner-table communication is not an option for the O'Keefes, but the family still finds ways to stay connected. They speak on the phone often and get together for holidays. As the eldest, Patrick, puts it, "We always ask each other about our activities when we talk. We rely on one another to tell when big events are coming up and then we do our best to remember to ask about it the next time we talk."

The O'Keefe Family photo

The O'Keefe Family- Washington, D.C.: Catie and Kevin O'Keefe with their daughters Maureen and Kathleen. (Not pictured: Elder brother Patrick, who lives in Chicago, IL.)

Build Rituals

For Dave Nuscher and Dave Sullivan, of Belmont, Massachusetts, regular rituals are the glue that holds their family together. Rituals lend structure to the Nuscher-Sullivans' days, creating a framework to support communication and respect.

The two Daves adopted their 9-year-old son, Perry, when he was just under a year old. As a non-traditional family, they had to work perhaps harder than others to get the ball rolling; simply starting the international adoption process was a test of their commitment to the idea of having a family. But they had already been together for five years and they knew they had a strong enough foundation."We felt confident that we'd be good dads," says Nuscher, "and we wanted to provide a child with the same kind of happiness we both had growing up."

When they brought their son home from Cambodia, all the established habits and roles had to undergo adjustment, just as with any new parents. "From the very beginning, we found that having a routine helped Perry get settled and it helped us, too," says Nuscher. "From the time he was 9 months old until he was 2 or 3, we sang him the same two songs and read him the same two books every single night."

Now that Perry is older, the daily routine maps out a division of labor in which each family member knows what's expected of him, and the logistics of each day run as smoothly as possible. Nuscher, director of editorial and creative services at Tufts University, manages all the finances. As a computer science instructor at Harvard and Boston Universities, Sullivan has a slightly more flexible schedule; he helps Perry get ready for school and out the door. Perry, for his part, knows exactly what jobs he must complete each morning (prepare for school, feed the guinea pigs) in order to earn 30 minutes of video-game time.

Other, more special rituals give them quality time together: Once a week, they take turns choosing a restaurant to go to for dinner. On Saturdays, Perry and Nuscher go to the library and play sports; on Sundays, Perry and Sullivan go to church together. And equally important is the alone-time built into the daily structure. "We can predict when we'll have time together and when we'll have time to ourselves," says Nuscher. "That's really important to us." It's important in general, according to Feise. "You want everyone in the family to have a sense of place and individual identity," she says. "That is what lends each person the belief that they have something to contribute."

The Nuscher-Sullivan Family photo

The Nuscher-Sullivan Family- Belmont, Mass.: Dave Sullivan and Dave Nuscher with their son, Perry, 9.

The Landsgaard family also relies on daily routine to sustain a sense of security. "For us," Kristen says, "the most important ritual is saying the rosary together every night before bedtime. We're all together in the same room at the same time then, and everyone is quiet. There's a real sense that we're all there for each other."

Some families hold fast to less frequent, often more elaborate traditions that are equally effective for creating a sense of closeness and shared excitement. Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Rewired:Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn, offers as an example his family's construction of an extravagant gingerbread house each year. Twenty years ago, he says, when he had two teenagers, a preteen, and a baby, he cut out a newspaper article about the art of edible homes, and he and his kids got to work. It became a project central to the family's holiday experience, starting about a month or so before Christmas with a group discussion about possible themes and designs. "Now," Rosen says, "it's become an inviolable thing." His children, ranging in age today from 18 to 35, all return home during the holidays, and everyone sets aside a full 48 hours to complete the house. "It's not really about the house, though," observes Rosen. "It's about the fact that we spend two days a year together as a family. Our closeness is partly grounded in the ritual."

Stay Flexible

As important as routine is, too rigid families with inflexible attitudes suffer under the weight of predictability. The Pabst-Dalys keep a mind-bogglingly complex schedule. Three days a week, Naomi Pabst commutes three hours round-trip between Manhattan and New Haven, Connecticut, where she is a professor of African-American studies at Yale University. Don Daly, who owns his own real estate business, usually oversees getting the children to school and day-care. Anatola, a serious gymnast, has four-hour practices four evenings a week and weekly commitments with a performing arts group. And Daly and Pabst insist on having dinners all together each night, even if it means late bedtimes. "It takes a lot of order and precision to coordinate each day, and we have to organize things meticulously," Pabst says. "But within that, we're spontaneous. We think of ourselves as orderly, but never regimented. It's crucial for us to be able to go with the flow."

While the family has rituals, such as celebrating every holiday and having a pancake brunch together every weekend, they make a point of also doing things on the spur of the moment. They might, for example, hop in their car for an unplanned weekend trip to Vermont or accept an impromptu invitation to a friend's house, even when doing so disrupts the usual evening, homework, or morning routine. "We like to keep a sense of adventure and fun," says Pabst. "It's part of working to keep the family dynamic alive, fresh, and bright."

Focusing on that dynamic allows Pabst and Daly to keep their own relationship vibrant. "Our secret ingredient," Pabst says, "is that Don and I are madly in love with each other. We have a deep regard for one another, and we work hard to keep ourselves emotionally available. Even if I'm taxed to my limit, I'll still take the time to pay attention to him in loving ways, and he'll do the same. The spontaneity is part of that."

Therein, according to Ellen Weber Libby, lies one of the keys to creating a happy family. "The parents' relationship is the beginning. Children mirror tensions they see and feel in their parents, and those tensions affect their relationships with one another. When they see their parents loving each other and committing to each other, the whole family is strengthened."

Nevertheless, Libby says, if parents are no longer committed to each other, it doesn't make sense to project a false love, or to stay together for the sake of trying to keep children happy. "Kids feel so much more relaxed when a house isn't filled with unspoken tension," she says. "If parents are not working well together, their children may be better off if they separate." Divorced parents can still express respect for their ex-spouses, respond honestly and openly to their kids' needs, and engage in fun activities with their kids, she points out. "Being from a single-parent family does not have to mean being unhappy."

Have Fun and Reach Out Together

Another essential ingredient in a happy family life is taking the time to do new things together—even if doing so means dragging reluctant teenagers along. "When you enjoy each other," says Libby, "you create joint experiences that serve as a bond. You get to know each other as individuals, and kids learn important things like compromise and respect for others' desires."

As Patrick O'Keefe explains, "When you're young, it's hard to tell your friends that you're going out of town for the weekend with your parents and sisters. We went often, and I always felt like I was missing out on things. Most of the time though, it ended up being really fun. On our boat we had no TV, no friends, and no video games, so we would entertain each other and get rest. Each weekend made us closer, and I think the seclusion from the rest of our confusing adolescent worlds was crucial to the growth of all of us individually and as a unit."

Doing things as a family also gives parents a chance to impart values to kids and to model appropriate behaviors through their own behavior. As Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist at Harvard University, argues, parents today tend to overemphasize their children's happiness. "What would really be helpful to kids is seeing their parents caring for others; that should be a priority. That's how kids themselves learn to care for others." Choosing activities you can do together that will benefit others—volunteering at a soup kitchen, for example, or helping in a community cleanup—allows kids to see parents caring about the world around them, and also gives them a sense of their own place in that world.

For Pabst and Daly, that kind of togetherness is inspiring, and helps them keep their own senses of wonder while reinforcing the sense of wonder in their kids. "We always want them to have a feeling of abundance in the world, and to be grateful for that abundance, and to give freely to others because of it," Pabst says. "When they're older, we plan to figure out ways to enjoy time together while also contributing to the communities around us. That just feels like the right thing for a family to do."