By Catherine Newman
Could the secret to family happiness be as simple as a comfy couch, the latest Pixar title, and a shared bowl of popcorn?
It turns out that even the most basic family activities, when done with a bit of intention and ritual, can boost contentment in lasting ways.
According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, studies indicate that habits such as a weekly movie night or sharing "I'm grateful for ..." thoughts at the dinner table have a significant impact on overall happiness.
Still, in the typical crazy-busy household, it can be difficult to stick with any routine, no matter how fun and easy.
As a mom to four kids ages 9 months to 14 years, Lyubomirsky knows this all too well. But she believes it's worth the effort to keep trying. "It's all about fit," she says. "You need to find what works for you and your family."
With that in mind, we asked some of our favorite authors and bloggers to share the mood-boosting traditions that work best for them. The answers we got back - from giggling over old photos to sitting down for a weekly tea - just might inspire your family to pick up some happy habits of your own.
Together with our ultra-doable healthy habits, they'll make for a fantastic 2014.
HAPPY HABIT 1: JUST SAY YES
WHO DOES IT: Suzy Becker, author and illustrator of "One Good Egg," "Kids Make It Better," and other books; spouse, Lorene; Aurora, age 9.
WHAT THEY DO: Yes Day came into being "when we got sick of hearing ourselves say no," Suzy explains. To counteract the negatives, she filled a cup with six "Have a nice day" slips of paper and a single "Have a Yes Day" one. If Aurora draws the latter at breakfast, her requests (Can I stay up late? Can I watch TV before breakfast?) get a yes. And so do Suzy and Lorene's: Will you walk the dog with me? Will you try a little bite of fish? Yes!
WHY IT'S AWESOME:
It's not just that there aren't any nos on Yes Days, it's that there are fewer nos every day, since Aurora tends to save up all her asking. And Yes Days have turned out to be more about individual stretching and family togetherness than the anticipated screen and junk-food excesses. "I love the unspoken 'within reason' part," Suzy says. "For all the talk of ordering larges at Dairy Queen, we've actually topped out at smalls." Aurora keeps it reasonable, says Suzy, because she knows there will always be another Yes Day.
HAPPY HABIT 2: CELEBRATE SMALL THINGS
WHO DOES IT:
Lorraine (LiEr) Teigland, blogger, ikatbag.com; spouse, David; Emily, age 9; Jenna, 7; Kate, 5.
WHAT THEY DO: LiEr is known for turning out gorgeous craft projects on her blog, but each week she calls a time-out to have tea with her three daughters. It's an idea inspired by her own childhood in Singapore. "The kids are especially famished after being at school all day, and we miss each other during the week." So every Friday, they do a special tea to mark the end of the school week in a ceremonious way. Sometimes LiEr bakes scones, and they set out a pretty cloth and the tiered serving trays; other times it's store-bought muffins on a bare table or hot chocolate at Barnes & Noble.
WHY IT'S AWESOME: Sitting down together to break bread _ or scones _ has proven benefits (see Healthy Habits), but, says LiEr, "It's not so much about the eating," it's about giving her girls an occasion they can count on, a moment to breathe, even when life gets busy with school. "We play card games and talk about our week, maybe plan for the weekend," LiEr explains. "It's something special they look forward to."
HAPPY HABIT 3: RELIVE SPECIAL FAMILY MOMENTS
WHAT THEY DO:
Emily prolongs the fun of family getaways by curating a digital vacation slide show, complete with a songs-of-the-moment soundtrack. The crew sits down together to savor it, then works back through past slide shows to see the same shots in different years: seaside ice cream, mini golf, the girls in the backseat of the car. "They clamor to watch last year's, and the year before, and it's like a rabbit hole. They love it. And we get to see how much they've changed."
WHY IT'S AWESOME: "We're making meaning and memories for them," Emily explains. Indeed, according to happiness expert Lyubomirsky, reminiscing about wonderful times is another one of those research-proven mood boosters. "When we asked people to think about the best day in their life and replay it in their mind, like a videotape, that increased their happiness levels," she says.
HAPPY HABIT 4: USE MOVIES TO SPARK DISCUSSION
WHO DOES IT:
David Vienna, blogger, thedaddycomplex.com; spouse, Larissa; Wyatt and Boone, age 5.
WHAT THEY DO: "Before we had kids, every night was Movie Night," recalls David. "Except, we just called it 'night.'" And now this "total movie nerd" is sharing the love with his twin boys. Once a weekend, the family orders in a pizza and watches whatever movie strikes the boys' fancies. "We finish every screening by talking about what the story taught us. And the wonderful thing is, even if we've seen it before, the lesson may differ." When they watched "The Sword in the Stone," for example, the first time they talked about how Wart learned that brains often defeat brawn; after the second viewing, they discussed how practice helps you master a skill. "Seriously, I think my boys could skip school and just watch this movie on repeat to learn everything I want them to know."
WHY IT'S AWESOME: For David, the post-movie chitchat is key. "When a movie ends, we say, 'OK, guys, what did we learn? How did you interpret it?'" He thinks such discussions will give them skills to find lessons in the films' stories and in their life experiences. Of course, the big ideas come with a load of giggles, and that helps, too. Studies show that laughing together can build stronger relationships (and it's another Healthy Habit).
HAPPY HABIT 5: GET SIBLINGS TO BOND OVER BOARD GAMES
WHO DOES IT: Elizabeth Foy Larsen, co-author of "Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun"; spouse, Walter; Peter, age 14; Henrik, 11; Luisa, 9.
WHAT THEY DO: Board games are not just unboring for Elizabeth's family. They're an instant, low-cost way to bridge the family's sometimes tricky spread of ages and interests and serve as a mood booster during dark, endless Minnesota winters. When stuck inside kids stress out, Elizabeth helps them channel their energies into favorites, such as Apples to Apples; Bang!, an Italian card game that's a more detailed version of wink murder; or a sassy, modified version of Sorry! that they call You're Welcome.
WHY IT'S AWESOME: Playing brings the siblings closer _ but without calling attention to itself as a bonding experience. You might say that the pointlessness of a game is its point exactly. "We get instantly very, very silly, and then we're laughing together again, and we're all just softening toward each other. I notice that there's a nice little afterglow when we spend that time together." Plus, putting screens aside in the evening and having some unplugged fun (another Healthy Habit!) promotes better sleep for all.
HAPPY HABIT 6: HAVE A KINDNESS RITUAL
WHO DOES IT: Christine Carter, sociologist, happiness expert, and author of the book "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents"; spouse, Mark; Fiona, age 13; Molly, 11.
WHAT THEY DO: Four times a year, Fiona, Molly, and their grandfather fill ziplock bags with essentials (socks, bottled water, an energy bar, lip balm, sunscreen, and a tangerine) and distribute them, in person, to homeless people. "Sometimes, they call it a Kindness Scavenger Hunt," Christine explains. They started including lip balm because one of the girls noticed that homeless people often have chapped lips. One of the kids wrote a note that said simply: "We see you and we care."
WHY IT'S AWESOME: Multiple studies have shown that doing good deeds increases feelings of well-being and connectedness. For Christine's family, "it's an act of empathy and imagination." Making and delivering those care packages benefits people in need, of course, but it has also given the girls "a really deep gratitude for their own home, and they experience their own power, their ability to help," Christine says. "Is it weird to say it's so much fun? But it really is! And the people are so appreciative. It's so positive for everybody."
HERE'S TO YOUR HEALTH!
These eight simple good-for-you resolutions won't cause you or your crew any pain, and they'll lead to lots of gain.
BUY SOME PEDOMETERS: Using a pedometer is a terrific way to get each family member into the walking habit, which can translate into better health for life. For extra motivation, set a group challenge. Once you hit a combined goal (10,000 steps per person over age 6, for instance), the whole crowd gets a fun reward, such as an afternoon at the local ice-skating rink.
FLOSS AS A FAMILY: Getting kids (and even parents) to floss regularly can be a chore, but a daily floss is the best tactic for fighting gum disease. Since gum disease can lead to tooth loss and may increase your risk of respiratory infections, it's a smart move to gather everyone in the bathroom at bedtime and floss together.
GIVE 'EM A DAILY DOSE OF YUKS: Whatever gets your family laughing _-cat videos, a game of charades - is good for your collective health, so make time to watch a goofy clip or perfect your impersonations. Laughing enhances our intake of oxygen-rich air and boosts the feel-good chemicals known as endorphins, according to the Mayo Clinic.
DITCH SCREENS AN HOUR BEFORE BEDTIME: Put those beloved gadgets to bed at least an hour before you and your kids power down. According to Mariana Figueiro at the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, spending two or more hours in front of a screen's light suppresses slightly the production of melatonin, the substance that makes us feel sleepy.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR WATER PITCHER: Dig it out, then fill it with water (and sliced citrus fruits, such as lemons, limes, and oranges). It won't just pretty up your fridge; it may also get your family drinking the world's healthiest beverage. Water refreshes without sugar and caffeine, and if your family isn't loading up on soda and other sugary drinks, they'll have more room for the nutritious foods they need.
FIBERIZE: Why fiber? It not only keeps us regular, but it also helps us maintain healthy blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol, and supports all those beneficial bacteria we need to keep our immune systems on track. Filling up your family with fiber doesn't mean pushing the brown rice, either. Avocado, popcorn, edamame, and apples, among many other yummy choices, are rich in fiber-y goodness.
EAT TOGETHER: A Harvard Medical School study found that the more often families convene for a meal, the better their eating tends to be: fewer trans fats, fried foods, and soda. Plus, according to The Family Dinner Project, recent studies show that kids who regularly sit down to dinner with the family get higher grades, have better vocabularies, are more resilient, and are less likely to take up unhealthy habits, such as smoking. If the dinner hour doesn't always work, try for a sit-down at breakfast or go European-style by enjoying a long, lovely weekend lunch.
Leslie Garisto Pfaff
(c) 2014, FamilyFun magazine, www.familyfunmag.com
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