Happiness For Dummies
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Some families have priorities — things that they feel are most important, things that make them happy and are crucial to family life that give the family a clearly defined sense of direction and purpose. Other families do not — they’re like tumbleweeds, blowing this way and that and getting nowhere in particular.

Take the Johnson family, for example. Their home is full of books and magazines. Every evening, the parents ask their children if they have homework. At the dinner table, they talk about what’s happening in the world and even discuss serious topics, like abortion, whether kids should have sex in their teens, drug use, and whether it’s okay for people to live together before marriage.

They watch TV as a family, and on Saturdays they all go to the local library and check out books. When the kids were little, the parents enrolled them in summer reading groups and took them to museums. And the parents are among the few who go to parents’ night at their children’s school. In the Johnson family, education is a priority.

For the Elliott family, it’s all about game night. All three of their kids are involved in sports — Holly is on the school soccer team, Brad plays junior varsity football, and Mark is in Little League baseball. The parents attend all their games, sometimes dividing up the games between them when they occur at the same times.

The family cheers for their favorite college team on the weekends as they watch the games together in the family den. The father is a member of a sports club and the mother organizes refreshments for Mark’s Little League games. This family’s number-one priority is sports.

And, then there’s the Gutierrez family, whose priority is socialization. They make their home available for all of their children’s friends. There are big birthday parties for the parents as well as the kids. Last Thanksgiving, there were 25 friends and relatives for dinner, and at Christmas the house is full of people. The parents like to take vacations with other couples and families rather than just the five of them.

All of these families are happy — they’re just happy about different things.

Priorities provide families with:

  • A sense of immediacy: What the family needs or wants to do first and foremost

  • A sense of purpose: How this family wants to define itself

  • A sense of importance: What the family believes is important

  • A set of shared values: Values that all the family members share in common

  • A sense of the future: Where the family’s heading in the days, weeks, months, and years to come

  • A sense of stability: An agenda that doesn’t change from one day to the next

Try this exercise to help your family set its own priorities:
  1. Find a time when the whole family can sit down together for at least an hour.

  2. Pass out sheets of paper and ask each family member to write down three priorities he or she thinks the family has or should have. Mention things like honesty, supporting each other, and health. Emphasize that this is not about your individual priorities — it’s about what you think the family should be doing as a group.

  3. Then, one by one, have each member do a “show and tell,” sharing his list and explaining why he chose the things he did.

  4. Don’t comment right away — wait until everyone has shared their list and then open the door for discussion. Are there any points of agreement — things listed by more than one family member? Are there any glaring omissions? Is there anyone in the family who seems to not want to get onboard with these priorities? If so, don’t criticize them; instead say “It’s okay if you don’t want to share your priorities with us now, but we really do want to know what you think this family should be doing more of.” Leave the door open for them to join in later.

The goal is to end the hour with a firm sense of what you value as a family.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

W. Doyle Gentry, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, a distinguished Fellow in the American Psychological Association, and the Founding Editor of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

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