Tolstoy was right, Bruce Feiler told a rapt audience at Washington, D.C.'s Sixth and I synagogue Tuesday night, quoting the legendary opening line of Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The crowd had gathered here, despite a damp and blustery evening, to learn the secrets of happy families, aka the title of Feiler's latest book, which already seems headed for the sort of spotlight turned on his bestsellers like Walking the Bible, a memoir of trekking through biblical landmarks, and The Council of Dads, on creating a group of godfathers to guide his twin daughters should he fail to survive cancer.
Feiler has been cancer-free for five years, the last three of which he has devoted to exploring how to make families happier, including his own. It's not so much that Feiler's family was in crisis—he knows crisis, having battled cancer—but the responsibilities to tend to their kids, parents, and each other were taking a toll on Feiler and his wife, Linda Rottenberg. "We were at a breaking point, and we felt there must be a better way," Feiler told U.S. News, ahead of Tuesday's program, a talk-show style conversation with David Gregory of NBC's Meet the Press. The biological clock doesn't quit once you have children; then you race "to actually build a family in time," he says.
Feiler went searching for guidance—in self-help books and among friends and family—but found an absence of relevant advice in an age of new technologies, schedules, and gender roles. "Even our metaphors are outdated," he writes. "Sandwich generation? Linda wouldn't dare serve processed luncheon meat to our kids. So what are we, then, just schmears of organic hummus in a vegetarian wrap?" Meanwhile, the importance of the subject can't be overestimated, he says. "Study after study confirms that the number one predictor of life satisfaction comes from spending time with people you care about and who also care about you. Simply put, happiness is other people, and the other people we hang around with most are our family."
In The Secrets of Happy Families, Feiler writes the book he wanted to read, surveying leaders from a range of sectors, from technology and finance to the military, to name a few, to determine how the best practices from these institutions can be applied to our most central one.
So what do happy families have in common? They are the title of each of the book's sections: "Adapt All the Time," "Talk. A lot," and "Go Out and Play." To get there, Feiler offers some 200 ideas—some of them counterintuitive and controversial. They include tips on rearranging your furniture for better conversation, how to talk to your kids about sex, and ways to negotiate conflict, or how to handle his daily 7:42 p.m. fight with his spouse.
The following are a sampling of some other strategies to create family harmony:
• Tell your family history. "This, to me, is the best idea in the whole book," Feiler says. The more children know about their families, the better off they are, Feiler explains, citing the work and life of Marshall Duke, an Emory University psychology professor. Duke, a colorful character (he's wearing a panama hat in his official university photo), brings the concept to life in an early scene in Feiler's book: "'Okay, everybody, let's begin!' Marshall said, sounding like a camp counselor who had waited all winter for this moment. Marshall then pulled out a handful of traditional Jewish skullcaps and flung them, Frisbee-style, toward each of the grandchildren, who bobbed and wove in an attempt to land one on their heads. No one succeeded." And then Duke went on to note important events of the week—marking birthdays, a visit home from college, and someone's courage on having his teeth pulled.
Duke and Robyn Fivush, also an Emory University psychology professor, led a 2001 study of 48 families and found that the more that children knew their family history, the higher their self-esteem, the more empowered they felt over their lives, and the better they felt their families worked. Through family stories, children find role models who may have faced similar trials, but ultimately prevailed. Plus, they feel connected to something larger than themselves. These conversations are naturally suited for the dinner table amid the comforts of food, but the key is the storytelling, which can happen anywhere.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
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• 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."