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10 Secrets of Happy Families

Susan Swindell Day Editor / November 23, 2015

You know those worn out photograph albums groaning on a shelf somewhere in your home? What about your child’s baby book of memories? Get ’em out during the holiday break, psychologist David Niven says, they make for great bonding moments in your family room. Photo albums and family videos. All of those countless hours of video taping you did during school plays, family vacations and in random moments in your backyard? It’s time. As Christmas approaches, remember it’s not always things that make families happy. In fact, experts says, what makes families happiest of all is the connectivity they feel with each other whether together or apart. So how about your family? Do you have a balanced, strong, loving connection? One where you can depend on each other in all circumstances?

“Ultimately, the highest salary and the best car aren’t fulfilling,” says Niven, author of 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It (Harper San Francisco; 2004). “Loving relationships are. They are the foundation of who we are. Happiness isn’t what happens to us, it’s the love, connections, and support structure we have and giving of yourself unconditionally.” Heading into the new year, use the following tips to make family your priority.

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1. Get out the memorabilia.

Kids need to belong, Niven says. “Research shows that when we share family history, we strengthen the bond between family members.” And kids long to belong.

“When they feel part of the tribe it makes them feel secure and happy — they also don’t need to go outside and seek connections that might be unhealthy,” Niven adds.

Even if you don’t have old photo albums or new ones, you can probably locate a bunch of family photographs in a box somewhere. Plenty of families have years of video footage they rarely have time to watch. Now’s the time. Make a night of it with the kids. You’ll be surprised by the wash of emotions you’ll feel as memories resurface.

2. Tell stories to each other.

Families are busy, busy, busy; there’s hardly time to look at each other in passing. But happy families make time to connect. “When you all get home for the day, or when each kid comes home from school, talk about your days and really listen to each other,” says Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Shalom in the Home: Smart Advice for a Peaceful Home (Meredith Books; 2007).

3. Give affection.

The very essence of a happy family is enjoyment of each other, says Richard Eyre, coauthor of The Happy Family: What’s Happening to Families … And How to Save Yours (Golden Books Adult; 2002). This can be expressed in your affection giving. Children need big bear hugs and passing ruffles of the hair daily.

4. Set loving examples.

When you show affection and love to your mate in front of your children, they develop a barometer for what love is and what love looks like. Praise your mate in front of the kids, accept him and put your marriage at the center of your family, says Boteach.

5. Develop traditions.

Traditions are actions you engage in over and over again, like Tuesday Tacos or all-day-pj day. Small things like this become big to kids, says Meg Cox author of  The Book of New Family Traditions (Running Press; 2012). Traditions lend a certain magic and texture to your everyday life.

6. Make time for family.

Happy families limit activities per child so the family isn’t forever running ragged, Niven says.

7. Don’t be overworked.

Parents are overworked, Niven says. Make an effort to make your family your salvation. If you’re always working on your computer or elsewhere, your kids will begin to think they’re not your priority.

8. Keep the yelling down.

Happy families happen to reasonable adults, in other words, don’t go at it in front of the kids. While conflicts are inevitable, Boteach says, always demonstrate resolution afterward and assure your kids everything is OK.

9. Eat together.

Happy families cite eating together as an essential. Simply put: Families that eat together, stay together, Boteach says. Try for a minimum of four family dinners a week, he says, and better still, pray before you eat.

10. Put family before friends.

In happy families, family comes before friends, experts say. Make caring for your kids fun; when kids get bored they start looking for excitement outside the home, says Niven. “Friendship is important, but subordinate to family,” he adds.

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