This holiday season, many of us gathered with our families, some for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While time with loved ones can be heartwarming, family dynamics can also be complex and challenging.
We offer insights around some of these relationship challenges and skills for building stronger relationships in our Science of Happiness course, a free, eight-week online course that explores the roots of a happy, meaningful life. When we asked students in the conclusion of the course how the journey had impacted them, they shared everything from small habit changes to big life transitions. But one of the themes that kept coming up was how the course enhanced their sense of connection with family.
Family is key to well-being
In an opening discussion in the course, we asked students all around the world what makes them happy. The overwhelming response revealed how important family is for happiness.
Annette, a new student in the course, summarized it this way:
“The things that make me happy are spending time with my family and my dog, seeing my children grow and prosper in adulthood, being able to be independent despite physical limitations.”
Many students identified family relationships as their main focus for improvement through the course. They described many difficulties in these intimate relationships, as well: Juggling work and home life can be challenging, and when we are stressed, we often project our negative emotions on to our loved ones.
For example, Yainak, a student who recently completed the course, reflected:
“When I was terribly busy raising my children and I didn’t have the time to be considerate of others, it was difficult for me to be grateful to others, and I would only complain, wondering why I was the only one having a hard time. I couldn’t even be generous to my husband, who was the closest to me. At that time, when I got together with other housewives, the main topic of conversation was complaining about our husbands.”
Research suggests that family relationships can help us cope with stress, form healthier habits, and enhance self-esteem, leading to higher well-being. So how do we strengthen our family relationships?
Skills for happier family relationships
Each of the course’s eight weeks focuses on a specific theme, and many of these are very relevant to our family relationships.
Forgiveness. Conflict is inevitable, especially in close relationships, and our forgiveness lessons in the course center on forming genuine apologies, as well as activating compassion as we consider forgiving others.
For example, students learn the process of forgiveness based on research by Fred Luskin. Once you acknowledge your feelings and make a commitment to forgive, the steps also include soothing yourself when you feel upset and focusing on your positive goals for the future rather than past hurts.
Student Anna recalls many “family members’ relationships crushed due to unwillingness to forgive,” and emphasizes that “with family members who you care about, it’s OK to be the first one to apologize to the other for the situation you are in without blaming one or the other.” Many students agreed with this observation, acknowledging how the simple action of apologizing first can initially be uncomfortable and difficult—but ultimately worthwhile.
Gratitude. One practice, the Gratitude Letter, was particularly popular in the course. Students wrote letters expressing thanks to people they hadn’t properly thanked, and delivered them in person if possible, creating the space for heartfelt conversation.
Jackie, a new student in the course, shared:
“I wrote the letter to my mom and called her. It was moving and powerful for her, even though I thank her all the time, this delivery was more meaningful as I wrote to her to thank her for the person that she is, for her happy spirit and resilience. She cried, I cried, and this exercise made us both very happy and brought us closer together.”
Student Katie created a habit of doing the Three Good Things practice, taking time to reflect on positive moments from the day as a way to bring attention to the blessings in her life. Her partner joined in for this evening ritual, which has strengthened their bond through a short but impactful moment of appreciation.
“I’ve noticed feeling more rested when we do this,” she said. “We laugh more before we sleep and are spending less time looking at screens.”
Yainak also developed a gratitude practice with her husband. “We are now able to express our gratitude to each other, and I am amazed at how happy we feel when we do so,” she said.
Mindfulness and compassion. Throughout the course, students try a variety of mindfulness and compassion practices that can benefit their relationships with their families.
In the Active Listening practice, students practice giving and observing body-language signals during conversations that help deepen connection and enrich communication—like eye contact, smiles, and nods to show you are paying attention.
The mindfulness practices consist of three varieties: Mindful Breathing, Body Scan Meditation, and Loving-Kindness Meditation. Students are encouraged to integrate these practices into their daily habits, and many students reflected on the calm and clarity they get from practicing mindfulness.
Yainak found herself struggling to take care of everyone as a mother, daughter, and wife; all of the time and energy it took had become a chore, so she didn’t feel truly caring. Ultimately, she found that practicing mindfulness was a way of taking care of herself, so she could better take care of others. She came to this realization during a Mindful Breathing practice, by “relaxing her mind and taking slow breaths.” After the course, she set a goal of creating “a life that helps those around me by gently approaching my own mind and body, then working on myself and imagining a happy future.”
Do you want to explore the roots of your own happiness and deepen your relationships? Sign up for the course in the new year and join our community of like-minded students striving for happier and more connected lives.