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6 Rituals for a Healthier Family

Family rituals provide you and your children with a sense of security, identity, and belonging. They build stronger family relationships through the creation of shared memories and the commitment of time spent together. (See Cheat Codes for Dads: Shared Rituals) With those benefits in mind, here are 6 rituals every family will enjoy.

  • Family Meals are a tremendous ritual of connection and security. Really, everything I needed to know I learned at dinner. Although Family meals are a great ritual to practice daily, you can shoot for 3 to 5 family meals a week if your schedule doesn’t allow for a daily family meal. Involve the whole family in the meal process. Whether they help with food preparation, setting the table, or cleaning up, everyone can help in some way. Use the whole mealtime to talk, share about your day, get to know one another more deeply, and laugh. Use the time to grow closer to one another.
  • Days of Honor also represent a great opportunity to create rituals to celebrate family. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Children’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries…make each one special with activities, favorite foods, and even a few gifts to honor the special people in your family.
  • A Biannual Mommy/Daddy Night. Twice a year let each child spend the evening and night with either “Mommy” or “Daddy.” Take turns so each child gets a special night with each parent. Plan a special meal, watch a movie, enjoy an activity of your child’s choosing. Whatever you and your child choose to do, enjoy this special time of parent-child bonding.
  • Celebrating an International Day can also create a wonderful family ritual. Pick three or four countries you want to learn about over the next year. Take time to learn a little bit about each country. Then celebrate an International Day in honor of that country. Eat foods from that country. Listen to music from that country. Talk about the country. Even play games common to that country.
  • Heritage Day. In a similar fashion, learn about the country from which your family has descended. Learn about the heritage of that country. Then celebrate the country and traditions of your “origins” on a special Heritage Day.
  • A Walk in the Woods. Make it a weekly or monthly ritual to take a family walk in the woods or through nearby park. Not only will you grow closer as a family, but you will also reap the physical and emotional benefits of nature as well.

Of course, there are many more rituals you could enjoy. I encourage every family to celebrate holiday rituals, a bedtime ritual, a morning ritual, a parting ritual, a “reunite-at-the-end-of-the-day-ritual”…. The possibilities are endless. But each one presents the opportunity for a healthier, happier family.

What are your favorite family rituals? Which new ones might you like to try?

Exercise Your Depression

Families and happiness seem to go hand in hand. At least it appears so in Facebook posts and television commercials. But we all know families experience hardships and struggles as well. In fact, our family members might struggle with depression and that depression may deepen in times of stress like we are experiencing today.

If you, or someone in your family, struggles with depression, you know how it impacts the whole family. If so, I have good news. Two studies, one from 2017 and one from 2020, suggest a fun and effective way to help reduce the symptoms of depression. Exercise…aerobic exercise to be more specific.  In both studies, engaging in an 8-week moderate to intense aerobic exercise program reduced depressive symptoms. The most recent study (2020) found that those who had a more severe baseline of depressive symptoms were the most likely to respond positively to an aerobic exercise regime. So, if you or someone in your family struggles with depression, start exercising today. Here are some tips to help you get started.

  • Pick an aerobic exercise you will most likely enjoy. You could walk, jog, bike ride, swim, row, or many more. You can engage in these activities indoors in a gym, on a treadmill, an elliptical, or a stationary bike. Or you can enjoy these activities outdoors, allowing allow you to enjoy the benefits of nature as well.
  • Buddy up. If you struggle with depression, ask a family member or friend to join you. Join a class or group designed for that activity. If your family member struggles with depression, join them in their exercise routine. You can motivate one another while sharing company and time together. You will not only reap the benefits of exercise but the benefit of companionship and a growing relationship.
  • Make it a habit to encourage. Express gratitude for the time you share while exercising. Acknowledge improvements. Recognize the beauty around you, especially if you choose an outdoor aerobic exercise. As you do, you will also realize the positive impact of gratitude and awe on your mood and the mood of your exercise partner.

These studies measured improved results after only 8 weeks, but you might just find
yourself enjoying this so much you make a lifetime habit out of it. I know I did. So, if you or a family member are feeling depressed start exercising today.

Family Happiness is for the Birds

Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds? Creepy…but recent studies show birds play a very different role in our lives and the lives of our families. For instance, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research explored the data collected from 6,000 people living in 26 European countries and from a variety of socioeconomic levels. They discovered that the richness of bird species in their living environment was positively associated with life-satisfaction. The greater the bird species in an area, the greater life-satisfaction people in that area reported. In fact, a 10% increase in bird diversity led people to report an increase in life satisfaction equal to the life-satisfaction reported when a person experienced a 1.53 increase in their salary.

You might be thinking, “Birds? What are you talking about? That’s crazy!” I know. That was my initial thought as well. But think of the joy you feel when you see the first robin of spring. Last spring, we saw orioles in our neighborhood for the first time and it was genuinely exciting. But don’t take my word for it. Another study in 2017 involving 1,023 participants who lived in an urban setting explored the impact of vegetation cover and bird diversity on depression, anxiety, and stress. In particular, experiencing bird diversity in the afternoon decreased participants’ experience of depression, anxiety, and stress. Additionally, having 20-30% vegetation cover in an area resulted in enough bird diversity to reduce the severity of depression, anxiety, and stress. “Is it the birds or the vegetation cover?” you might ask. The researchers couldn’t say for sure. But a more recent study may shed some light on how to answer that question.

For a study completed in 2020, researchers hid speakers that played a variety of bird songs along sections of a popular hiking trail in Colorado. By using the speakers, researchers could adjust the perceived diversity of bird songs along the trail. Researchers then interviewed hikers about their experience along the trail. Those who experienced a greater diversity of bird songs reported improved well-being. They also reported feeling better about life and about their hiking experience than those who heard fewer bird songs. One of the researchers said they were “kind of flabbergasted” that only 7-10 minutes of exposure to greater bird diversity led to participants experiencing improved well-being. “Flabbergasted. ”  I like that word. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted myself.

What does this mean for your family? It means that taking the opportunity to hear bird songs offers another way to enhance your family’s happiness. Birds! Not Alfred Hitchcock’s birds, but the birds in your own community. Here are a few ideas to gather birds so you can hear their song.

  • Put some bird feeders in your yard. Include a hummingbird feeder and a finch feeder. Plant some flowers that will attract birds. Then sit down with your family and enjoy the show. Count how many different types of birds you see?
  • Take a family trip to an aviary. You’ll see birds from all over the world and get to listen to their songs. And, you can have great family fun nights at the aviary.
  • Go for a family walk or hike through a local park. Enjoy your time together in nature and listen for the birds.
  • You might even purchase a CD of bird songs or download forest sounds filled with bird songs and play it quietly in the background at home. It may not be quite the same as the outdoor experience, but…who knows?

These activities are not for the birds. They are for you and your family. Enjoy the experience and the increased life satisfaction your family will gain as well.

Feeling Negative? Pessimistic? Put on a Smile

It is easy to get caught up in the stress and turmoil of life. When we do, we begin to view the world through a negative and pessimistic lens. We might grow a little more depressed or anxious. Maybe you have felt yourself growing more negative or pessimistic in response to the stresses of life. Maybe you’ve even noticed your child, your spouse, or your parent becoming more depressed, negative, anxious, or pessimistic. If so, you also know the pain this can create. But now you can thank researchers from the University of South Australia for revealing a way to change that downward spiral. And it’s as simple as…smiling!

Researchers at the University of South Australia stimulated the facial muscles of study participants to replicate the movements of a genuine smile. They did this by having them hold a pen between their teeth. They discovered that the activation of “genuine smile muscles stimulated the person’s amygdala, which then stimulated the release of neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive outlook.”

“So what?” you might ask. Let me explain. Stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile contributed to an increased ability to recognize other people’s positive facial expressions and body movements. In other words, participants became less negative and less pessimistic while becoming more accepting and inviting when the muscles of a genuine smile were engaged. Previous studies have shown that stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile increases a person’s ability to overcome stress more quickly as well. Combining these studies, we discover that engaging the muscles of a genuine smile helps a person become more positive, increases our ability to recognize other people’s positive facial expressions and body movements, and increases our ability to soothe ourselves more quickly when stressed.

But what does this mean for you and your family? How can your family reap the benefits of stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile? After all, we can’t walk around with a pen clenched between our teeth all day. How can we use this information to help our families? Here are 3 ideas.

  1. Smile. Smile when you see your family. Let them see your pearly whites in a genuine smile. Remember, a large percentage of learning comes through observation. When you smile, your family is more likely to smile with you. In other words, smile for a happier family.
  2. Encourage your family to smile. Tell a “dad joke.” Watch a funny movie. Listen to a comedian. Play a game your children enjoy. Be silly. Have fun. Smile.
  3. If all else fails, you can always have the whole family walk around for twenty minutes clenching a pencil in their teeth

Whatever you choose, bring a smile to your face and to your family. Everyone will be glad you did.

Learn the Stats…Your Family Stats

I have friends who love football, soccer, baseball, basketball…really any sport. They watch all the games. They know the players’ names, backgrounds, and achievements. They can recite various players’ position, height, and weight. They can rattle off statistics about a favored player’s style of play and perhaps even tell you the names of the player’s wife and children. They have an amazing grasp on the knowledge of the sport and the players they love.

Some of these men, though, have trouble telling me the name of even one of their children’s friends, even though they live with their child. They have difficulty recalling their anniversary date or their spouse’s birthday, even though they see their spouse every day. They have no mental model of their family members’ lives or world. In the words of John Gottman, they lack a love map of their partner and children.

This raises questions in my mind…questions about priority and honor. We make time to learn about those things we love. We spend time being with and learning about the things we value. We talk about the things we love. We develop a complete and exhaustive “love map” of those things we enjoy and love. So, let me pose a couple of questions to consider:

  • Based on your knowledge base, what receives a higher priority: the sport you love or your spouse and children? Which do you know the most about?
  • Do you know more stats about your favorite athlete or your spouse? Your children?
  • Are you more familiar with the world of sports or the world of your spouse (life story, friends, hobbies, dreams, favorite clothing style, struggles)?
  • Are you more familiar with the world of sports or the world of your children (favorite school subjects, friends, frenemies, dreams, struggles, hobbies)?
  • Do you invest more time and effort to learn about your favorite sport or your spouse? Your favorite athlete or your children?

The point is, we need to become intimately familiar with the world our family members navigate on a daily basis. We need to develop a “love map” of our spouse and our children. It will show that you “buy in” to your marriage and your family. It will reveal how much you value your spouse and your children. It will strengthen your marital relationship by giving you a deeper understanding and appreciation of your spouse. It will nurture a healthier relationship with your children as well (which will also make discipline easier). So, get to know the family stats—the dreams, the life story, the thoughts, the fears, the joys, the list goes on…. You will have fun learning the information and you will nurture a stronger family at the same time.

The New Order of “Awe-Walkers”

Would you like your family to experience more happiness? Less upset? Greater social connection? If you answer yes, the New Order of Awe-Walkers invites you to join their ranks. It’s free (well, I just made it up) and the required activities can be completed in as little as 15 minutes a week. I decided to start the New Order of Awe-Walkers in response to a recent piece of research. In this research, a group of people in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were divided into groups by researchers affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco. Both groups were asked to go for a 15-minute walk once a week for 8 weeks. Both groups were also asked to take a “selfie” during their walk and send it to “the lab.” Finally, both groups were asked to complete a daily on-line assessment of their mood.

Only one group, however, was given instructions to cultivate awe as they walked. Specifically, they were asked to walk somewhere new, pay attention to details, and see “everything with fresh, childlike eyes.” This group became the “awe-walkers.” The other group simply went for a walk.

Not surprisingly, the “awe-walkers” improved their ability to discover and amplify awe. They also reported greater happiness, less feeling of upset, and greater feelings of social connection than the “non-awe-walkers.”

Even more surprising to me, the “selfies” taken by the “awe-walkers” changed over the time of the experiment. The “awe-walker,” although still in the “selfie,” became less focal to the picture and even secondary as the scenery around them grew more prominent and focal. In a sense, the world became larger. They became a little less self-focused in their selfie and more “a part” of a larger, more awe-inspiring world.

Based on this research, I invite your family to join the New Order of “Awe-Walkers.” To join only involves two steps… make that three.

  1. Commit to going for a 15-minute walk with your family every week.
  2. While walking, pay attention to the details around you. Intentionally see “everything with fresh, childlike eyes.”
  3. Talk with your family as you walk, sharing with one another what each one finds “awe-
    some.”

That’s it. Just fifteen minutes once a week to enjoy an “awe-walk” with your family….and then share the increase in happiness and social connection it will produce. Won’t you join the New Order of “Awe-Walkers”? (For more on the power of awe for your family read Using the Power of Awe for Your Family.)

What Makes a Successful Marriage?

Researchers from Western University in London Ontario asked a question: “What makes for a good relationship?” To answer this question, they analyzed data collected over an average of six years from 11,196 couples…. all to discover  the best predictors of a successful relationship. They considered how each partner perceived their spouse and relationship as well as the individual characteristics of both partners. What did they discover?

A person’s perception of their partner and their relationship with their partner was the best predictor of relationship satisfaction. Three specific qualities that had the greatest impact included:

  • Perceived partner commitment
  • Appreciation
  • Sexual satisfaction

So, if you want to have a great marriage, build your relationship in each of the three areas noted above by doing the following.

  • Pay attention to ways your spouse shows their commitment to you and your marriage. Your spouse may show their commitment by working around the house or by getting up everyday to work. They may show their commitment through their words, their actions, or touch. Become a student of your spouse. Pay attention and learn how they show commitment.  When they do something that seems unloving, assume love, pause, then respond.   
  • Ask your spouse what you can do to let them know you are committed to your marriage. This will assure that you know how to show your spouse your commitment to your relationship in ways they will see and understand. Then do it. Don’t just ask once. Things may change. So, keep asking and keep doing.
  • Make it a habit to appreciate your spouse. Appreciate their appearance. Thank your spouse for cooking dinner, doing laundry, washing the car, and every other action they take to support their family. Appreciate your spouse verbally every day.
  • Talk about sex. Remember, sex is about more than what happens between the sheets… much more. As Kevin Leman has said, “Sex begins in the kitchen.” So, ask yourself: what will put your spouse “in the mood”? What brings your spouse the greatest pleasure? What words or actions might increase your spouse’s sexual satisfaction? Listen to their answers. They may surprise you. Share your own answers as well. Enjoy the discussion… and the knowledge you gain.

Building a relationship in which your spouse can feel satisfied and secure is a gift to your marriage and your family. Your spouse will benefit, your children will benefit, and you will benefit. You and your spouse will enjoy the security and joy of greater relationship satisfaction and intimacy. Your children will enjoy the freedom to mature, knowing that your marriage is a safe haven from which they can explore and grow.

Laughter, the Pandemic, & Your Family

First, the bad news. A study from Flinders University published in January, 2021, found that 2% of their 1,040 participants tested positive for COVID and 5% reported have a close family member or friend who tested positive for COVID. More bad news, 13.2% reported symptoms of PTSD related to COVID. That’s over I in 10 people experiencing symptoms of PTSD in response to COVID and the stress it has created in our homes and communities.

I know we have all taken precautions to remain healthy and keep our families as safe as possible during this pandemic. We have done our best to avoid “catching” COVID or letting our family members “catch it.”  We also need to do everything in our power to help our families avoid experiencing symptoms PTSD in response to COVID. How can we do that? Here are 4 ways I believe will help.

  • Laugh and encourage your family to laugh. A study published in 2020 from the University of Basel (read a review here) revealed that the more often a person laughed, the fewer symptoms of stress they experienced in response to actual stressors in their lives. So tell a joke. Watch a comedy. Remember funny family stories. Joke around. Laugh. It may be just what your family needs.
  • Manage news media and social media…do not consume it. Think of the news media as food. Do not overconsume. Do not binge. Consume only what you need to maintain a healthy life. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, like you’re getting too much, turn it off. It’s ok—actually, it’s good—to turn it off and walk away. Watching too much news media or binging on social media can increase stress. Turn on a comedy and laugh instead. (Didn’t we say that before?)
  • Talk with your children and your spouse. Numerous studies show that secure relationships buffer the impact of stress and promote health. Give your family the healing benefit of your time, your listening ear, and your relational support through these troubling times. It may help your whole family escape the risk of PTSD.
  • Participate in your faith community. Make an intentional effort to grow in your faith. Personal growth and participation in a faith community contributes to a better ability to manage stress. Involvement in personal faith and a faith community contributes to better mental health in general. Take the time to nurture your faith as a family. Participate in a local faith community, even if it is on-line right now.

Four simple practices that can help your family not become one of the 13% suffering symptoms of PTSD in response to COVID. Practices that can help your family navigate the pandemic and manage the stress in a healthy way. In fact, these four practices can help you manage stress and grow even when we are in “better times,” when the pandemic is passed. Practice them now. They’ll benefit your family forever.

A Dad’s Crucial Role Starts Early

A study published in the Social Service Review (September 2020) confirms the importance of a father’s presence in their children’s lives. This study used data collected over a 10-year period (starting at five-years-old) to explore the impact of a father’s involvement on the behaviors 15-year-old children. They discovered that a father’s social engagement with their children as well as time spent with their children led to fewer behavior problems in 15-year-olds. A father’s quality involvement in their children’s lives impacts their behavior for the better. But how much will it improve their behavior?

This study (read a review) found that increasing father involvement among families from lower socio-economic-status (SES) reduced the differences in behavior of 15-year-olds from higher SES groups. Specifically, a father’s involvement with his children reduced the gap between lower and higher SES groups in behaviors like aggression, depression, and delinquency by 30-50% in children who did not live with their fathers. Their involvement reduced that same gap by 80% for those children who lived with their fathers. Even more powerful, this study suggests that a father’s active presence in his children’s early life has a significant long-term impact on their adolescent behavior.

Interestingly, cash support did not have this significant of an effect on adolescent behavior. Children need hands-on, time invested, social engagement of fathers to really make the behavioral difference we want, not cash. (Father’s still need to support their children financially. Children need the financial means to meet daily needs. But a father’s active involvement in their lives can impact their behavior beyond what simply throwing cash their way does.)

Fathers, your involvement is crucial, pivotal to your child’s future. Get involved. Experience the joy of engaging your child today and you will experience the joy of a relationship with them for a lifetime.

What’s Your “Story of Love”?

Your “story of love” has a huge impact on the state of your marriages. So, I ask you. “What is your story of love?” “From where did you learn that story?”

Maybe you learned your “story of love” from Disney and your story’s theme is “and they lived happily ever after.” It sounds like a lovely story, but it assumes everything will remain unchanged, just as it is at this moment. People will not change or grow. Circumstances will forever remain the same and no problems will arise. But challenges do arise. Circumstances and people do change. Personal challenges begin to weigh on the marriage. No, this does not provide a good “story of love.”

Or maybe you learned your “story of love” from Jerry Maguire, building it around the theme of “you complete me.” A romantic statement but a dangerous storyline for love. Marriage is not built on two incomplete people leaning on one another to make them whole. In fact, two “half-people” will only make a quarter of a marriage when they come together. A healthy “story of love” consists of two whole people choosing to join their lives in marriage.

One more…. Perhaps your “story of love” comes from Hollywood movies in which one character must choose between duty and stability (a boring life) on the one hand or freedom, adventure, and happiness on the other. You may have also seen this “story of love” in real life as one person leaves their spouse while citing the theme of this “story of love:” “I love them but I’m not in love with them.” But relationship choices are rarely, if ever, so black and white. People, and the relationships they form, are complex. “Loving” versus “being in love” is more of a sentiment than a solid theme for a long, enduring relationship. It speaks to a poor story line more than the relationship it leaves behind.

All these stories are based on a fixed mindset; and a fixed mindset is not good for a healthy marriage. a fixed mindset believes character and ability are fixed and cannot change. They believe unchanging ability leads to success; effort is NOT required. Problems become character flaws of the spouse rather than challenges to be overcome. If happiness does not always flow easily, “we just weren’t meant to be together.” If challenges arise, it must mean a better alternative is “somewhere out there, out where dreams come true.” The story built on a fixed mindset does not build a healthy marriage. This “fixed mindset story” builds a doomed marriage.

A healthy marriage is built on a “growth mindset story.” People with a growth mindset believe ability is nurtured, people change and grow, and effort leads to greater success. They put in effort, intentional effort, believing they can become a better spouse and build a stronger, healthier marriage. When they go through times of struggle, they accept the challenge as an opportunity to grow. They turn toward one another and work together to overcome the obstacle as a couple. You can see that the growth mindset creates a much stronger and more enduring story of love. (For more on a growth mindset click here.)

So, I ask again. What is your “story of love”? Is it a story built on a fixed mindset? Or is it a story built on a growth mindset? The answer makes all the difference between a faltering marriage and a happy enduring marriage.

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