What Do Happy Families Know That You Don’t?

Bestselling author Bruce Feiler on what makes families happy.

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• Revolutionize the family dinner. It's an archetype of family nourishment, but one that can be hard to routinely fit in. "It turns out there's only 10 minutes of conversation" during dinner—the rest of the talk is "taken up with 'take your elbows off the table' and 'pass the ketchup,'" Feiler says. What you talk about takes precedence over the meal or its timing, says Feiler, who suggests using a business strategy called "time shifting." Get together for family breakfast or a regular Sunday meal, he advises, noting that the ritual of even one family meal per week can show benefits.

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• Let the kids pick their punishment. "It sounds insane," Feiler says. "Nobody can believe it, except for the people who do it." To be clear, this is not about ceding control to children, but simply engaging them, Feiler says. Every dimension of life today has become decentralized, he argues, pointing to religion, business, and government; families should follow suit.

In his family's case, a weekly family meeting serves as a designated time for family engagement, creating a safe zone for everyone to reflect on what they did well as a family in the past week, what went wrong, and what to work on in the week ahead. By letting the children pick their own punishment, they are more driven to avoid that fate, Feiler says, noting that his own daughters are "little Stalins," whose draconian ideas for punishment regularly require scaling back.

[See 5 Ways to Reflect, Refocus, and Renew Your Life]

• Ditch date night. At least if it's your typical dinner and a movie, which won't rekindle the desire you're after. Instead, use novel activities to spark excitement—try a new recipe, go to a new neighborhood, talk dirty. Even a double date will help ignite the brain chemicals that foster that in-love feeling.

[See How To Make Love Last]

• Create a family mission statement. Brand your brood. Mission statements serve as cornerstone of organizational success—the best of them outlining the values that chart a course for success. For families, the project can be even more motivating, Feiler says.

"It forces you to conceive, construct, then put in a public place a written ideal of what you want your family to be. It may not be for everyone, but for us it was the most revealing and most exciting thing we had found to express our 'best possible family.'" Their mission statement begins with,"May our first word be adventure, and our last word love," and closes with "We are joy, rapture, yay!" In between, a set of principles can help to start difficult conversations. For example, when one of their daughters got into trouble for gossiping at school, the family turned to its mission statement and used one of its tenets—"we bring people together"—to address the problem.

According to Feiler, his "big take-away" from his research is for parents to focus on what's working to reinforce the positive emotions in the family. And, meanwhile, see what else works from among the strategies he suggests. "What's the secret for a happy family?" he asks. "Try."