The Science of Happy Families

July 12, 2013

What's the secret of happy families? The New York Times' Bruce Feiler looks at the research.

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What keeps families happy and close? Here, homesteader Jack Whinery poses with his family in Pie Town, New Mexico, September 1940.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Flickr Creative Commons


"All happy families are alike," wrote the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, "but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way." Bruce Feiler, columnist for the New York Times and author of "The Secrets of Happy Families," would probably agree. For the past few years, Feiler has been studying what, exactly, makes happy families tick. In this episode of Innovation Hub, Feiler shares with us the science behind familial bliss, and local Massachusetts families chime in about how they stay close.

Happy families talk, says Feiler, and not just about the small stuff. A happy family from the early 1900s is shown in this photograph from the Library of Congress.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Flickr Creative Commons

One of the biggest keys to success for happy families is that they talk, says Feiler, and not just about the light and fluffy stuff. Though parents often tend to sweep dark moments in family history under the rug, Feiler says it's actually these stories - like Uncle Joey's arrest or grandpa's bankruptcy - that can be most formative for kids.  In the summer of 2001, psychologist and family ritual expert Marshall Duke found that, in the aftermath of 9/11, children who were well-versed in their family's history were better able to cope and recover from trauma.  This was especially true when family histories encompassed both successes and failures. “Kids who understand that they’re part of an oscillating family narrative have this greater belief that that’s what expected in life: a series of ups and downs,” Feiler says.  

Is eating together the key to familial bliss? Not exactly, says Feiler. Here, a classic family dinner is depicted in the painting "Freedom from Want" by Norman Rockwell, published by the Office of War Information during the Second World War.
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps nothing in the world of happy families has been more closely studied than the family dinner.  In this department, America is seriously lagging, ranking 33rd out of 35 countries in the world when it comes to sharing meals together. But how do you squeeze in family dinners between dropping off Sarah at softball and John at guitar lessons? Not to fear, says Feiler: it's not the meal itself but the together time that counts. Studies have shown that there are usually only ten minutes of productive conversation in a family meal, and those ten minutes don't necessarily have to be at the dinner table. "Take that ten minutes and move it to family breakfast. Have a bedtime snack at 8:30.  Even one meal on the weekends can be effective," he says.

Don't be afraid to share the tough parts of your day with children, says Feiler. Here, the Albernesi family of New York City smiles in this Library of Congress photo from 1910.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

As for the topic of conversation during dinnertime, Feiler says that it's just as important to stay honest during meals as it is when sharing family history. When talking about your day, don't gloss over the bad stuff. Being truthful and recognizing that there are highs and lows in life is a lesson in itself. "If you bring your children into that part of your life – the struggles – you’ll prepare them for when they’re not in front of you," Feiler says. 

Famous Families Quiz: Answers

Did you try your hand at our famous families quiz? Check your answers here.

  • A: The Kennedy Family: President John F. Kennedy is second from the left. His brother Robert F. Kennedy is  seated at the far left.
  • B: The Wallenda Family: The Wallendas are a famous family of acrobats and circus performers who have been performing since the 1920s. The grandson of Karl Wallenda (shown here in 1965, second from left) was recently the first person to cross the Little Colorado River Gorge in the Grand Canyon by tightrope. 
  • C: The Jackson 5: Michael Jackson (third from left) got his start as a child star in this musical group featuring his four brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon.
  • D: The Brady Bunch: a famous television family from the 1970s.
  • E: The Bush Family: President George H. W. Bush is seated second from left. His son, President George W. Bush, is directly behind his mother, Barbara.
  • F: The Osmond Family: A famous musical family from the 1970s. 
  • G: The Romanovs: The last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, is shown here with his family, who were  later murdered by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution. Grand Duchess Anastasia--whose supposed escape from the execution became the subject of countless conspiracy theories, books, and even a cartoon movie--is seated at the far right.

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