4 Secrets of Happy Families and How You Can Apply Them

Do you wonder what the secret sauce is that holds happy families together?

What do they do right, and how can you learn to make your family happier?

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,”  said the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy in his book Anna Karenina.

Was he right? Do all happy families have certain things in common?

In this article I’ll share four practices that can draw your family closer and make everyone in your home happier, summarized from more than 200 ideas found in The Secrets of Happy Families, by Bruce Feiler.

Four ways to draw your family closer and make everyone in your home happier, summarized from 'The Secrets of Happy Families' by Bruce Feiler.

Why Is a Happy Family Important?

Over the last fifty years, families have changed drastically. We have blended families, adoptive families, divorced families, single-parent families, two-parent families, gay-parent families, family members with different faiths and some with none at all.

But no matter what kind of family you belong to, your family is key to your overall happiness and well-being.

In fact, studies prove that the number-one predictor of life satisfaction comes from spending time with people you care about and who care about you.

In other words, happiness is other people, and the other people we hang out with most are our family. So how do you make sure that you’re ‘doing’ family effectively?

author and book cover

Bruce Feiler shares over 200 secrets to family happiness in his book.

Here are four secrets of happy families that you can adopt today.

#1: Have Family Dinner the Right Way

You already know this: When it comes to family dinner, it’s not what you eat or even when you eat, its how you eat.

family dinner

Family dinner is a good time to play, introduce a ritual or solve problems. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Happy families use dinnertime to do the hard work of bonding. It’s about asking the kids what went well today, or what didn’t go so well. It’s about sharing stories from your childhood, or how you met your spouse.

Family dinner is also a good time for play, introducing family rituals or solving a problem. Here are some practical examples:

  • Autobiography night—One night a week, ask your children (age five and up) to recall a memorable experience from either that day or the past. Then follow up with “elaborative questions” such as who, what, when, where and why? These will help build memory and identity.

    mom and daughter

    Let your children express themselves freely at dinnertime and then guide them with the right questions. Image source: iStockPhoto.

  • Pain point night—One night a week, ask everyone in the family to bring up a “pain point.” It could be a child who has to do a class project with a kid he or she doesn’t like, or Mom having to take her mother to see an eye doctor at the same time she had a parent-teacher meeting scheduled. Soon, everyone will start to dissect the problem and devise possible solutions, all elements of good problem-solving.
  • Bad and good night—Another fun way to bond is to go around the table asking everyone to say one good thing that happened today, and one bad thing that happened.
  • If your family doesn’t care for games, then just talk to each other. But in order to make it meaningful and ensure no one gets left out, adopt the “10-50-1 rule”—10 minutes of quality conversation per meal; let your kids speak at least 50% of the time; teach your kids one new word every meal.

    family dinner quote

    Joseph Califano, Columbia University.

#2: Fight Smart

All families fight. The ones who do it smarter are more likely to succeed at being happy. As always, it’s not what you fight about, it’s how you fight.

boys fighting

All families fight. But it’s important to know how to fight in order to stay happy. Image source: iStockPhoto.

First of all, you have to know when to fight. For example, research shows that most women tend to be really stressed between 6:00pm and 8:00pm because they’re coming home from work to start their “second shift” of housework, caring and nurturing. So for Mom, this is not a good time to bring up something that could cause conflict.

Second thing is language. The words people use when talking to one another can be a major source of conflict, especially pronouns. If a couple (or family) uses first person pronouns—I or we—this is a sign of a healthy relationship. “We-ness” is a mark of togetherness, while second person, as in “You always…” or “You never…” is a sure sign of disaster. One way to fight smart is to stop saying “you” and start saying “we.”

Third is length. Family fights are inevitable, but they shouldn’t last too long. When fighting, say all the important stuff in the beginning, say in the opening three minutes. After that, you’re only repeating yourself, and very likely at higher and higher decibels.

looser hand signal

Don’t use inappropriate body language during a fight. It weakens the relationship. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Fourth is body language. Everything, from the way you sit, or bob your head to your facial expressions, plays a huge role in a fight. Eyes are the biggest telltale sign! For example, rolling your eyes is a clear sign of contempt and a surefire predictor of trouble looming ahead. Just don’t!

#3: Speak Love

Despite what you might have heard (or felt), marriage is one of life’s most proven routes to happiness. The happier people are in their marriages, the happier their families tend to be.

So, if marriage is so important to families, how should you get more happiness out of the one you’re in?

According to Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages, every person has a primary love language.

couple holding hands

What love language does your spouse speak? Find out and use it more often. Image source: iStockPhoto.

The key to marital happiness is learning to speak the language of the other person. The five love languages are:

  • Words of affirmation. Using compliments and expressions of appreciation like, “You’re the best husband in the world” or “I admire your optimism.”
  • Gifts. Bringing flowers, leaving love notes or buying tokens of affection.

    spouse with flowers

    Some happy partners give each other gifts and other tokens of affection. Image source: iStockPhoto.

  • Acts of service. Doing something for your partner you know he or she would like you to do, like doing the dishes, walking the dog or changing a diaper.
  • Quality time. Giving your partner your undivided attention by turning off the television, sharing a meal or taking a walk together.
  • Physical touch. Holding hands, putting your arm around your partner or tussling their hair (if that’s the sort of thing they like).

#4: Shut Up and Cheer

If your kids are involved in sports, listen up!

father and son

Show positive expressions of support to help your kids succeed in sports and in life. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Team sports are useful because they teach kids important life skills such as getting along with others, determination and perseverance. For example, you learn that when you get knocked down, you get up again—no big deal!

The problem is parents. American parents get so obsessed with their kids’ sports that it sucks the fun right out of the game. Does this sound familiar? “Olivia, you’re out of place!” or “Shoot the ball, Emily! You’re not thinking!” This kind of pressure can make a child miserable.

father yelling at son

It’s no fun when parents become obsessed with a child’s performance in sports. Image source: iStockPhoto.

The president of American Youth Soccer Organization tells the story of a boy who had always played soccer, and then one year refused to try out. He chose snowboarding instead. When asked why, he said, “My dad doesn’t know anything about snowboarding. Besides, it’s so cold on the slopes he won’t come and watch me. So I get to snowboard without someone yelling at me all the time.”

Similarly, a study of 13-year-old skiers found that athletes who feared their parents’ “disappointment or disapproval” performed worse in the competition, while those who saw their parents as “supportive and positive” performed better.

So there you have it—just shut up and cheer! Even the research says so.

Some Final Thoughts

Who among us doesn’t want a happy family? There are 200 ideas in this book for radically improving your home life. It may sound like a lot, but really after a while, you’ll find yourself making mental notes for what you’re doing right or wrong.

family with children

Family is key to your overall happiness and well-being. Image source: iStockPhoto.

For me, I decided to test drive some of Feiler’s ideas. Our family adopted the “10-50-1 rule” at mealtimes. We’re still working on it, but I’ll tell you, it really makes a difference and dinnertime actually feels happier.

What can I say is I like this book and I like Feiler’s ideas. The only thing I’m absolutely not going to do is make a family vacation checklist (page 196). Who needs the extra work?

My Kids’ Adventures gives The Secrets of Happy Families a 5-star rating!

What do you think? Are there any specific suggestions you might want to implement with your own family? Are there any you definitely would not? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Images from iStockPhoto.

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About the Author, Patricia Redsicker

Patricia Redsicker writes research reviews for Social Media Examiner. She helps business owners craft content that sells. Her blog provides healthcare industry content marketing advice. Other posts by »


  • http://www.mykidsadventures.com/ Jennifer Ballard

    Thanks, Patricia! Sounds like a book full of good advice. I especially liked the family dinner conversation tips. One of our rules at the dinner table is “no video game talk.”

  • EmilyQuestions

    Family dinner, really important!

  • http://smartkids101.com/ Aubrey Hunt

    Great article. You’ve really touched on 4 wonderful ways families can grow together. Love it. Sharing it now!

  • http://www.familylifeuniversity.org/ Eric Dingler

    Thanks for your review of this book. I hadn’t heard of it yet, now…it’s on my “to read” list.

  • predsicker

    Absolutely Jen. It’s a fun book to read :)

  • predsicker

    No doubt Emily – much needed tradition!

  • predsicker

    Thank you for reading Aubrey :)

  • predsicker

    You’re welcome Eric. You’ll LOVE the book. It’s SO fun to read!

  • http://smartkids101.com/ Aubrey Hunt

    You’re welcome! :)

  • Amanda Shaw

    Nice article, and great suggestions. The pictures alone made me happy. :)

  • http://www.fineartmom.com/ Crystal Foth

    Great article Patricia! So important to connect as families.

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