It seems paradoxical, even counterintuitive but it’s true; happiness is fleeting when we pursue it. The more we try to make ourselves happy, the more it eludes us. Paradoxically, we find ourselves happy when we forget about ourselves and reach out to help another. In other words, to truly experience happiness a person has to plant seeds of service in the soil of kindness and fertilize it with generosity. Research even has a name for the good feelings that come from helping others. They call it a “helper’s high.” Those who do things for other people experience the euphoria of the “helper’s high” due to a release of endorphins. Helping others also increases a person’s sense of self-worth, which enhances happiness as well. So, to grow a happy family, sow seeds of kindness and plant starter plants of helpfulness, fertilize with generosity, and water it daily with polite hospitality. Still confused about how to grow happiness in your family by giving to others? Try these four ideas to get started.
Model kindness within your family. Give your spouse and children words of kindness and encouragement. Words like “Thank you,” “Please,” “Can I help?” and “You look nice” will model kindness. Don’t stop with words alone; walk the talk. Practice some “mighty little deeds of kindness,” like holding doors open for one another, letting someone else manage the remote…you get the idea. This is the first step in producing a happy family filled with kindness. Researchers at the University of California in San Diego and Harvard observed that one act of kindness leads others to engage in kindness. Ultimately, this “tripled the value” of the first kind act as it spread from person to person. When you share kindness in your family, your spouse and children will follow your example. Your kindness and generosity will “cascade through your social network [family] to affect” the lives of everyone in your family and more! ( read more in Why This Beautiful Human Behaviour is Highly Infectious)
Model kindness to those outside your family. You could start by trying an experiment researchers used in a study reported in How To Be Happy By Giving to Others: perform five random acts of kindness one day a week for six weeks. Have each family member assess their level of happiness at the start of this experiment. During the experiment, let each person record their acts of kindness just so you can keep track of all five each week. At the end of the experiment, assess your level of happiness again. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Volunteer as a family. Take the time as a family to volunteer with your church, a community activity, or an organization designed to help others (like Habitat for Humanity, a local animal shelter, or your local church).
When you gather as a family for dinner or in the car to travel to an activity, ask your spouse and kids about any acts of kindness they carried out. As each person talks about their act of kindness, explore specifics about the reaction of the recipient of their kind act. Were they surprised? Did they smile? How did they respond? Did they say thank you? Breaking the larger goal of showing kindness into a concrete observable goal of making someone smile will increase the overall happiness of the giver (see How to be Happy by Giving to Others for more).
Follow these four tips and you will notice acts of kindness, of giving to others, increase; and, as they increase, family happiness will increase as well!
Have you ever watched your children do something and thought, “What in the world are they thinking?” I have—like the time my daughter wrote herself a note to get out of gym class…in first grade…with a crayon…and signed her own name. For the sake of full disclosure, my parents likely thought the same thing of me. Like the time I drilled a hole in the bottom of their washtub and cut the bristles off a broom to make a washtub bass (it did work, by the way). If you have ever had an experience like these and thought, “What in the world…” then you can benefit from this back door to your child’s heart.
The back door to your child’s heart begins with your emotional response to his actions and words. When you feel frustrated, annoyed, angry, or proud of your child, you have just located the back door. Now don’t throw the door open and start to vent, gush, or lecture. Enter with caution and love. On the other side of your emotion (the back door) lies your child’s heart; so step back a moment, take a breath, and consider the door. Look beyond your emotion to what that emotion may be telling you. Let me give you a few examples of what your emotion may be telling you about your child.
If you feel annoyed with your child’s irritating behavior, he may be craving your loving attention. Give him a little time and attention.
If you feel frustrated with your child because he does not appear to listen, he may need to be heard himself. Take time to listen carefully and assure he feels understood by you. After he knows you understand him, he may listen more carefully to you.
If you feel defensive or if you feel a deep desire to justify your decision, your child may need you to appreciate his point of view. Try reflecting on his explanation of the current situation. Discuss it before offering your own.
If you feel provoked by your child, as though he is questioning your authority, he may need you to let him practice some independent decision making and experience the consequences of his own mistakes.
If you feel helpless in the face of your child’s behavior, he may need to feel empowered. Take time to discuss what he believes will result from his actions and review his responsibility for his choices.
In other words, your emotion may actually tell you what your child is experiencing in his heart and mind. Your emotion can teach you what your child needs. It is the back door to his heart. As you begin to show empathy for the deeper emotions that lie beneath his actions and help him explore what seems to be happening in his heart, he may open up. You may find yourself discussing the “why’s,” intentions, and motivations of his behavior as well as his deeper desires. When all is said and done, you will have a better understanding of “what in the world was he thinking.” More importantly, your child will feel heard, valued, and appreciated by you. He will have a greater understanding of his own inner world, which will help him practice self-control and make wiser decisions in the future. Your intimacy with your child will increase. And, he is more likely to listen to you. All these benefits begin when you pause a moment at the back door to his heart and consider what is on the other side (his heart) before rushing in. Rather than burst through with lectures, explanations, and yelling, open the door with gentle curiosity and begin to explore what is on the other side. From your emotional experience to his, you will share an intimate moment…and everyone will grow.
This family fun night is such a positive experience you might choose to make it a way of life in your family. I know several families who enjoyed this activity so much they decided to make it a regular part of their lives. And why not? It gave them a sense of accomplishment. It even enhanced each family member’s self-confidence and boosted their happiness. This family fun night also had a positive effect on everyone’s physical and emotional health. Over time, it improved the children’s social skills. Oh, and one more thing: it gave the whole family a greater sense of purpose and identity. Sound too good to be true? Well, you will have to try it to find out! Oh wait. I haven’t told you what this family fun night is… or how to have it. Sorry about that. Let me briefly explain this family fun night.
You can experience all these benefits and more by volunteering together as a family. Volunteering as a family creates a wonderful night of family joy. It’s true. You can volunteer to work with your church, your community, or another organization. You will have fun and experience all the benefits above. Whether you volunteer through an organization like Habitat for Humanity, your local humane society, a local nursing home, or your church you will finish your time of volunteering feeling good. Your family will grow more intimate, empathetic, and appreciative as you work together to help other people. Once again, I have to offer a word of caution. When you give it away for family fun you may find you enjoy it so much that it becomes a regular part of your family life. But then again, that’s the goal—to have fun as a family on a regular basis. Now get out there and give it away for some family fun.
PS–If you are not sure where to volunteer or how to begin, take a jaunt to Volunteer Match for some great ideas.
Mom was right again. I almost hate to say it, but she ends up right more often than not. She always said, “Eat your vegetables,” and now several scientific studies support her demands on my young taste buds. (When did science start siding with my mother anyway?) A study of 13,983 adults in England suggests that eating fruits and vegetables
improved positive mood and quality of life. (How did she know?) Another study reports those who ate seven servings of fruits and vegetables in a day reported more positive affect for that day and the next day! (Is that why my mother always said, “Eat an apple” when I asked for a cookie?) Other studies have shown that eating five-to-eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day was associated with greater happiness, reduced nervousness, and reduced feelings of “downheartedness.” (She always said, “Happy children eat their peas.” Really?)
The positive effect of eating fruits and vegetables does not stop in childhood either. Eating healthy servings of fruits and vegetables during adolescence is associated with reports of more positive physical health in early adulthood. Even in middle adulthood eating fruits and vegetables was related to greater optimism (the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables is thought to play a part in this).
Mom was right. Her demand to eat fruits and vegetables during my childhood improved my childhood, my young adult years, and now even impacts my middle adulthood years. So, once again, I tip my hat to moms everywhere for telling their kids to “eat your vegetables.” Perhaps we can give a special “shout out” to those French moms who seem to teach their children to eat all kinds of healthy foods (see How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm). We can take a page from their meal plan to encourage our kids to eat their vegetables by:
Make mealtime a sacred time set apart from the busy-ness of life to engage with one another in the preparation and savoring of our foods. We can assure that the whole family slows down to savor the intimacy we share over asparagus and broccoli as well as chocolate cake and cookies.
Assure mealtime is an expression of love, a time in which we slow down to cherish one another and our relationships rather than a moment to we wolf down some unknown food substance as we rush from one activity to another. Teach the whole family to view mealtime as an important familyevent of sharing, laughter, and fun.
Allow our children to participate in the whole process of the mealtime project. This process begins with growing and picking the vegetables or helping pick them out at the local farmer’s market or grocery store. The process continues through the preparation and does not end until we have enjoyed the food together and cleaned up as a team. Letting children participate in such a sacred event (see first bullet) will increase their sense of significance, competence, and contribution as well.
When I was growing up I never thought I’d say this; but, I guess I’ll join in with mothers around the world in saying, “Eat your vegetables.” It the least I can do to help my children and my spouse feel happier and physically healthier throughout their life!
I wish I had done this family fun night when my daughters were in early elementary school. Actually, this family fun night will result in two family fun nights: one now and one in the future. On the first family fun night, gather your family together to create a family time capsule. Here are 7 suggestions for creating a family time capsule. As you proceed through the steps, have fun learning about one another and sharing the objects you choose to place in the time capsule. Talk about the object each person chooses to include in the time capsule and what makes that object important to them. Here are the steps.
Get a water proof box to use as the time capsule.
Have each family member write a letter to him or herself. In the letter, each person can explain what he/she enjoys doing and what he/she find most exciting and fun. Put the letter in an envelope and drop it in the time capsule.
Take a photo of each family member to put in the time capsule. Take a family photo to put in the time capsule as well. And, don’t forget to include some photos of your pets; they are family, too.
Let each family member pick an object (or some representation of an object) that has special meaning to him/her. Put at least one object in the time capsule for each person. This might include a stuffed animal, a matchbox car, a favorite book, a nick knack, etc. If someone does not want to part with their special object, take a picture of it to put in the time capsule.
Add artwork, school reports, movie stubs, or other objects that say something about your family’s current activities, values, and priorities.
Make a list of your family’s favorite activities and current “best friends.” Drop the list into your family time capsule.
Pick a date (15 to 20 years into the future) to open the time capsule. You can choose a holiday (like New Year’s Eve), a birthday, or some random date to gather as a family. The purpose of this gathering will be to open the time capsule. Write the date on the time capsule and put it in a safe place.
You have just enjoyed the first of two family fun nights. As the day you chose to open the time capsule draws near, you have the opportunity for the second family fun night with the same time capsule. Print out invitations for each member your family reminding them of the upcoming “Time Capsule Opening.” When the “day of the opening” arrives, gather your family in one room and open the time capsule. Enjoy celebrating your family as you review the contents of the time capsule. You will have a wonderful time sharing family memories of the last 15-20 years. Who knows, you might even choose to create a new time capsule to open in 20 years with your grandchildren!
Our homes are filled with sacred places, places set apart for special purposes. We often take these sacred places for granted. Unfortunately, we disregard the sacred places of home to our own peril. When we neglect the sacred places in our homes, we miss the opportunities they offer for intimacy and growth. We fall “out of sync” and find ourselves growing distant from one another. Healthy families recognize the sacred places in their homes and enjoy them. Where are those sacred places? And what do they do for our families? Let me describe just four sacred places in our home.
The living room is a sacred place in our home. We share the stories of our daily lives with one another in the living room. Based on those stories, we develop dreams and goals that propel our lives into the future. As our life stories unfold with one another, we can share lessons, encouragements, and guidance to promote growth and the successful navigation through our lives and dreams. The living room has become a sacred place of cherishing and supporting one another’s life stories and dreams.
The kitchen is a sacred place in our home. The kitchen is set aside to allow families the opportunity to create together. In the kitchen we join together to prepare our sustenance. We work together to clean up the messes we make. We offer the fruits of our labors to one another so we can share in meals, conversation, laughter, and fellowship. We discuss the daily events of our lives and offer support and encouragement in the sacred space called our kitchen.
The bedroom is sacred place in our home, not only for the couple but for the whole family. It is through the bedroom we begin to sync our lives and attune to one another. We sync our daily cycle of rest and activity through the bedroom. We attune to one another and learn to enjoy rest together. For couples, the bedroom becomes a sacred place of learning the deep truths of intimacy and the cycle of sharing new life together. The bedroom is the sacred space in which we sync our lives together in such a way that new life is begun on many levels.
The porch is a sacred place in our home. We sit on the porch and reminisce about our times together. We grow more secure in our relationship with one another. But the porch is also on the border of the world. It is the sacred place from which we look outward. We stand on the porch and listen for the call of God, the dream instilled by Him in our hearts. We stand on the porch to explore our vocation and calling. Eventually, each one leaves home through the porch to fulfill their calling. They leave the security of home to live out their vocation in the world knowing that the sacred space of the porch is always available, always open. They need only step back onto the porch to receive the support, encouragement, and love they need to go on.
The home is filled with sacred places. Perhaps your sacred places are different than the ones I listed above. That’s fine. Each family finds their own sacred spaces within the home. Most important is for each family to nurture the sacred spaces. Care for them with respect. When we do, those sacred spaces will bring health, happiness, and joy to your family.
We need to plug in to build family happiness. No, I do not mean plug in the TV or the internet. Plugging in to technology won’t bring greater family happiness. In fact, too much technology tends to distract us from family happiness. In order to increase family happiness, we need to plug in to relationships. Positive relationships give us our greatest joy. They enhance our immune system and increase our life expectancy. In fact, positive relationships have the same level of health benefit as quitting smoking. Good relationships make us happier, healthier, and stronger. So, if you want a happy family, build stronger relationships within your family and with those outside your family. Here are some practical tips to help you do this.
Invest in building a positive relationship with your spouse and children. This investment will demand your time. Invest time in playing with your family. Enjoy doing work together in the yard or house. Volunteer together. Find out what activities your spouse and children enjoy then engage in that activity with them. If they enjoy jogging, take up jogging. Be present at their activities and in their daily life.
Participate in activities with another family. Go on a picnic with another family. Have a family over for dinner. Get together for a game night with other families. Go camping with other families. Have fun together. When you engage in activities with other families you build relationships with people in similar circumstances. As a result, you can offer mutual support and encouragement. Other families can provide you with a “reality check” when you feel like the kids are driving you “crazy.” You also find other trusted adults that your children might go to for advice when they don’t come to you. Family friends build family happiness and security.
Go on a double date. Studies have shown that “double dating” enhances intimacy. Those who participated in double dates found their attraction to their own spouse grow stronger. In addition, other couples might model desirable behavior for us to emulate or undesirable behavior to avoid. Either way, befriending another couple tends to strengthen our marriages and add joy to our lives. A happy marriage contributes to a happy family. So go on a double date for the sake of your family’s happiness.
Get involved in a community with a higher purpose, like church. Children who attended church with their family are more likely to see expressions of love and affection. Parents are more likely to know their children’s social network when they attend church as a family. In addition, involvement in a community creates the opportunity for mutual support and encouragement. Other parents can share their experience of raising children and support us in our efforts to raise healthy children. Creating friendships in a larger community adds support, encouragement, accountability, and positive experiences to family life. All this adds up to a happier family.
I have the pleasure of teaching Life Span Development at local university. As part of this class, I instruct students to interview someone over 65 years of age. They ask the senior at least 11 questions. I want to tell you about two of the questions:
What has been your greatest accomplishment thus far?
As you look over your life, what is most gratifying? What has been the meaning in your life?
After reading between 25 and 50 of these interviews every fall and spring semester for the last 15 years or so, I have noticed a pattern. At least 98% of the seniors who respond to these interviews gave an answer related to family for at least one, if not both, of these two questions. When all was said and done, “family” had given these respondents their greatest sense of accomplishment, gratification, and meaning. Sometimes I am absolutely amazed at the adventures and accomplishments of the seniors interviewed. They had fought for their country in World War II, endured torture at the hand of dictators, become the first wave of female news anchors, made great strides in careers, invented things, created works of art, and participated in some of the most fascinating life experiences you can imagine. Many times their personal accomplishments and sacrifices brought tears to my eyes. Yet, when they think about the meaning in their life, their greatest accomplishment, or what brings them the greatest gratification, they speak of family. Family was a greater accomplishment than any extraordinary personal accomplishment. Family provided greater meaning to their lives than fighting for their country or immigrating from an oppressive country to the United States. Family brought them the greatest sense of gratitude. In family they could see their greatest achievement and their most personally significant legacy.
Every semester, reading these interviews reminds me of the importance of family. They remind me to reassess my life and my priorities. I hope my sharing this will encourage you to do the same. Creating a marriage that brings joy to our spouse, our children and our overall family will rank as our greatest accomplishment. Raising children of integrity who pass integrity on to our grandchildren will remain one of our most gratifying experiences. When all is said and done, family brings the greatest meaning to our lives. If you doubt the truth of this statement, ask several hundred people in late adulthood. For you and me, that sense of meaning and accomplishment is being achieved right now as we love our spouse and raise our children. Don’t let this family time pass you by. Make it your greatest accomplishment in life.
Actions for Happiness compiled a list of 10 habits that increase individual happiness. When we encourage these ten habits in our family, we have happy individual family members. Happy family members contribute to a happy family. I don’t know about you, but I love to come home to a happy family! So, I like to explore how to make these habits an integral part of my family.
Nurturing an environment filled with positive emotions is one habit that enhances family happiness. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But, we will never completely rid our family of negative emotions. We will always experience frustrations, times of discipline, doing things we don’t want to do, the disappointment of lost games and poor grades, children breaking up with their latest romance…you get the idea. Negative emotions lurk around every corner. So, how can we nurture positive emotions in our family in the midst of life’s struggles?
First, it is important to realize that we do not have to get rid of all the negative emotions in our lives. Negative emotions serve a positive role in our life. Fear protects us. Frustration and anger reveal priorities and then motivate us to invest energy in that priority. We do not want to rid ourselves of all negative emotions. Instead, research suggests that we want to strive to experience three times as many positive emotions and experiences as negative ones. This 3-to-1 ratio broadens our perspective. Having three times as many positive emotions allows us to experience more of the world around us (negative emotions narrow our experience of the world to that one thing triggering the negative emotion). With a broader perspective, we respond more flexibly and creatively to situations that arise. Positive emotions also increase our openness to other peoples’ ideas and experiences.
What does all this mean for our families? When we create a family environment in which positive emotions outnumber negative emotions by 3-to-1, we enhance trust in our family. Trust translates to greater intimacy and closeness. Sharing of ideas, chores, and “things” will increase in an environment filled with positive emotions. Cooperation will increase as well. Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful family environment to live in? Don’t you want to create this positive environment in your home? I know I do. Here are a couple of ways to help create this environment.
Replace rigid expectations and goals with an openness to one another’s ideas and changing circumstances. Rigid expectations create fear and resentment. They narrow our focus and blind us to the need of the moment and the people involved. For instance, we easily miss the subtle cues of our child wanting to talk about something troubling them when we rigidly focus on an expected bedtime. Rather than listen, help them resolve whatever is troubling them, and grow closer in the process, our rigid expectations cause us to respond by yelling and accusing them of “never listening.” Give up the rigid expectations and remain open to the need of the moment. Remain flexible enough to make adjustments to an expectation or goal in response to a more important need or priority.
Replace jumping to conclusions with curiosity. Rather than assume another family member’s intentions, motives, thoughts, or feelings, ask about them. Let your curiosity lead you to discover hidden treasures in your family members. Ask them about their intentions. Explore their motivations without judgment. Empathize and help them understand their emotions. This curiosity will lead to a greater sense of security in your home. It will increase trust. In the midst of trust and security, it is easier to experience joy and awe. It is also easier to address and resolve disappointments, hurts, and angers in an environment filled with trust and security.
Practicing these two habits will increase the positive emotions in your home and add to your family’s overall sense of happiness. It may take some grace and practice on your part, but you are the best person to initiate filling your home with positive emotions. And, there is no better time than now. So have fun. Get happy.