10 Things Happy Families Do Differently

10 Things Happy Families Do Differently

“I sustain myself with the love of family.”
―Maya Angelou

Last night, an old friend from high school – a hometown success story and entrepreneur who owns and operates a large publicly traded company – a man whom I have a great deal of respect for – came over to our home for dinner.  After a delicious meal, he and I chatted for a couple hours in the family room and caught up on old times.  And as we wrapped things up, he said, “I admire you.  I admire the love in this home – the obvious love between you and Angel.  I admire the close relationships you’ve built and nurtured.  When I’m here it feels like I’m part of the family.  Nurturing a happy family is one of the things I never got around to.  So it was great to see it, feel it, and be a part of it tonight.  Thank you.”

When I sat down to write this morning, my friend’s remarks immediately came to mind.  Which got me thinking…  What does nurturing a happy family really mean?  What are some things happy families do differently?

Here are some thoughts to consider:

1.  Every day, every member chooses to be part of the family.

First and foremost, family isn’t always blood.  They’re the people in your life who appreciate having you in theirs – the ones who encourage you to improve in healthy and exciting ways, and who not only embrace who you are now, but also embrace and embody who you want to be.  Family members can be your best friends.  And best friends, whether or not they’re related to you by blood, can be your family.

Family is built with love; it’s not determined by marriage certificates, divorce papers, and formal adoption documents.  Families grow from the heart, through mutual love and respect.  The only time family becomes nullified is when the ties in the heart are cut.  If you cut the ties, these people are not your family.  If you build the ties, these people are your family.  So build and maintain ties with the right people and nurture them with love every day.

2.  Family members go out of their way for each other.

Family bonds are tied with true love, and true love involves attention, awareness, discipline, effort, and being able to care about someone and sacrifice for them, continuously, in countless petty little unsexy ways, every day.  You put your arms around them and love them regardless, even when they’re not very lovable.  And of course they do the same for you.

If you want to know what a healthy family is, it’s one where each family member wakes up every morning and says, “This is worth it.  You all are worth it.  I am happy you are in my life.”  It’s about sacrifice.  It’s about knowing that some days you will have to do things you dislike to make the people you love smile, and feeling perfectly delighted to do so.  That’s what it means to “be family.”  (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Relationships” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)

3.  Family sticks together through thick and thin.

“Being family” is also about supporting each other through life’s inevitable changes.  It’s knowing that your family will be there watching out for you through thick and thin.  Nothing and no one else will give you that.  Not your career.  Not your boss.  Not your clients.  Not money.  Not fame.

You can’t promise to be there for someone for the rest of their life, but you can sincerely be there for them for the rest of yours.  Stand by those you care about in their darkest moments, not because you want to stand in the dark, but because you don’t want them to either.  Brave the shadows alongside them until they’re able to find the light.  On the flip-side, stand by these same people on their sunniest days, not because you want to scorch your skin, but because you’re not afraid to let them shine bright.

And remember, timing is everything.  There is a time for silence, a time to let go and allow your loved ones to launch themselves into their own destiny, and a time to cheer for their victories, or help them pick up the pieces, when it’s all over.

4.  Everyone is permitted to be true to themselves.

The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated as is.  Sometimes we try to be sculptors, constantly carving out of others the image of what we want them to be – what we think we need, love, or desire.  But these actions and perceptions are against reality, against their benefit and ours, and always end in disappointment – because it does not fit them.

Remember, the foundation of love is to let those we care about be unapologetically themselves, and to not distort them to fit our own egotistical ideas of who they should be.  Otherwise we love only our own fantasies, and thus miss out entirely on their true beauty.

5.  Everyone takes responsibility for their own happiness.

Happiness is a choice that comes from within.  Being happy doesn’t mean everything is perfect, it means you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.  There are choices you can make every day to feel the effects of happiness.  Choose to do something meaningful.  Choose to take care of your body.  Choose to be around the right people.  Choose a good attitude.  Choose to express gratitude.  Choose to forgive.  Choose to focus on what you have, not on what you haven’t.

Begin today by taking responsibility for your own happiness.  The choice is yours.  Your family can support you, but they can’t choose happiness for you.  (Read Hardwiring Happiness.)

6.  Caring words are used to communicate, always.

You can measure the happiness of any close relationship by the number of scars that each member carries on their tongues and inner cheeks, formed over many years of biting back angry and insensitive words.

Bottom line:  Be careful what you say.  You can say something unkind in less than one second, but more than a year later the wounds are still there.  Don’t do this to your family, or anyone for that matter.  Every time words are spoken, something is created.  Be honest, but also conscious of what you say and how you say it.  Use words that build up, appreciate, encourage and inspire.

7.  The truth is upheld and promises are kept.

Cheating and lying aren’t struggles, they’re reasons families break up.  Because great things fall apart quite easily when they’ve been held together with lies.

The truth is, relationships don’t hurt.  Lying, cheating and twisting reality until it toys with someone’s emotions is what hurts.  Promises mean everything, but after they’re broken, sorry means nothing (at least initially).  So never mess with someone’s feelings just because you’re unsure of your own.  If you are unsure in any way, be sure to say so.  Always be open and honest.  And remember that when the truth is replaced by silence, silence becomes a lie too.

8.  Everyone makes QUALITY time for each other.

Here’s a harsh reality of life:  Regardless of the quality of your relationships with your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or close friends, you will miss them when they’re gone from your life.  And someday they will be.

You have to set aside quality time to share your love openly and honestly with those you love.  Realize that no matter how much time you spend with someone you care about, or how much you appreciate them, sometimes it will never seem like you had enough time together.  Don’t learn this lesson the hard way.  Express your love.  Tell your family what you need to tell them.  Don’t shy away from important conversations because you feel awkward or uncomfortable.  You never know when you might lose your opportunity.

So stay in close touch with what’s going on in your loved ones’ lives – communicate openly on a regular basis.  Not because it’s convenient, but because they are worth the extra effort.

9.  Presence is held sacred.

The greatest path to positive influence in any relationship is love.  And the greatest path to love is full acceptance within the present moment – allowing everything to be as it is, without hoping or trying to change things.

Presence is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in the “now.”  It’s about knowing that you must first attend to the reality of the moment before you can effectively contribute anything positive to it.  Practicing presence brings a sense of perspective and purpose to our lives, and opens the doorway to love others as they are.

Being completely present with someone is difficult, however, because it requires you to share yourself completely, vulnerabilities and all, and enter moments of unguarded honesty with this person.  And this person may hurt you, and you may hurt them too.  Yes, you will hurt each other sometimes.  But this is the very condition of full presence.  To become summer, means accepting the risk of winter.  To become present, means accepting the risk of absence.  (Read The Power of Now.)

10.  Patience and forgiveness are practiced daily.

No matter how honest and kind you try to be, you will occasionally step on the toes of the people closest to you.  And this is precisely why patience and forgiveness are so vital.  Patience is the ability to let your light shine on those you love, even after your fuse has blown.  And forgiveness is knowing deep down that they didn’t mean to blow your fuse in the first place.

Patience and forgiveness can be bitter at first, but the seeds you plant now will bear sweet fruit in the end.

The floor is yours…

In your experience, what helps create happy relationships and strong family ties?  Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts with the community.

Photo by: Milivoj Sherrington


  1. Erin says

    Although I’m a regular reader, I have never commented on your blog before… but I couldn’t resist with this article. Your thoughts here resonate deeply with me. I lost my best friend – someone who I unquestionably considered family – to cancer last year (he was only 41). I have tried to move forward with my life in a positive way and make all my other loved ones smile as often as I can… as often as my late friend made me smile.

    These ten points you talk about are exactly the things I have done to maintain loving relationships with the people I love. I couldn’t believe how precisely you touched upon everything I do. I TRULY believe these points to be the answers to successful, loving relationships. I have already shared this article with a few people I care about, who are not my blood family… just my family by choice.

    Thank you for writing.

  2. Dev says

    Another beautiful post. Healing my family relationships is something I worked on and succeeded with gradually over this past year. Your blog and book really kept me on track with the right mindset to make this possible. I am truly grateful.

    These two particular lines from your book helped change my perspective of how to properly treat the people I care about:

    1. “Do little things every day for the people you love. Sometimes those little things occupy the biggest part of their hearts. You can’t be everything to everyone, but you can be everything to a few people. Decide who these people are in your life and treat them like royalty.”

    2. “Accept people just the way they are. In most cases it’s impossible to change them anyway, and it’s rude to try. So save yourself from needless stress. Instead of trying to change others, give them your support and lead by example.”

  3. says

    Your thoughtful and caring posts are frequently awesome, in my opinion, but this one truly hit home for me and I intend to share it with my family – my real family who chooses to love me and be in my life. It’s seems a couple others agree with me about the quality of the message and potential power of following your advice here. I actually just took Dev’s advice and ordered a copy of your book. I look forward to reading it, and more posts like this.

    Thanks for making a difference and helping others do the same.

  4. says

    I just think it’s amazing and inspiring you took what your friend said as the compliment that it was, instead of automatically treating it with suspicion that your friend was jealous or trying to manipulate himself into your family. I’ve almost completely conquered forgiving and letting go of being wrongly judged in a similar situation. Your compassion and ability to be completely secure within yourself enough to use what he said in such a positive way as a starting point to help others is a shining example we should all take to heart.

    As for your question, #7 This. All of it.

    “Patience and forgiveness can be bitter at first, but the seeds you plant now will bear sweet fruit in the end.” I really LOVE this.

  5. Susan B says

    An illness that falls upon a pivotal family member is a true test. After reading this post, I have been pondering just exactly who my true family is and who is not. It’s not a matter of blood – it’s a matter of who has my back! The answers are interesting – I thought I knew who my family was. The more I think about it though, I find not so much. I had some people mislabeled.

    Thanks for a way to ponder – Dev’s comments to this post leads me to a way to go forward with less stress.

  6. Lisa says

    This hit home today. Yesterday my son decided to withdraw from his college and attend community college. He stuck it through his first freshman semester, played football and came out with a 3.2 GPA. As a parent you want to make sure your kids are making the “right” choices. That’s easy when the choices are simple, but it’s hard when the choices are big. But #4 above says it best. So glad I read this today. And today I will help my boy do what he needs to do to move on into this next chapter. I’m sure this isn’t easy for him, but he just wasn’t happy at the college he picked.

  7. says

    It’s so very easy to forget the importance of maintaining a warm, loving household and close personal relationships when you get wrapped up in professional or creative ambitions.

    I loved this post, thank you for writing it. Pursuant to #8, I’m glad to report that playing dinosaurs with my son is the best part of every day. :)

  8. says

    A good leader can also make a happy family. For ours, my husband serves that role. Everyone seems to calm down when they know someone has their backs in a strong, daddy kind of way. I know that doesn’t exist for everyone, but in my opinion, someone needs to take the role. When the world is spinning out of control, it is comforting to have that stable leader in the family.

  9. Mary Bixler says

    The hardest family to be is a split family and a military family. As grandparents all we can do is try to be there to be the glue that keeps it moving forward. By following your guidelines it keeps it all in perspective when things get really hard and there are lots of factors working against you. Thanks for this post.

  10. Michelle Angel says

    Strong family ties are formed when you love yourself enough to put the needs of your family and lover first. It is being able to recognize that we are all beautiful imperfect human beings but seeing each other in a perfect vision of imperfection.

    A strong family tie is formed when you stay committed to the vows you take when you marry and giving your all. Forgoing times of temptation staying faithful to your spouse despite it all. Forming that beautiful relationship in which you can spend all your days knowing that you have that one and only one best friend by your side until you die.

    A strong family tie is also formed when the man leads the family in daily prayers/devotions.

    Sitting together for family dinners.

    And last but not least enjoying the little moments that mean the most. A night under the stars just holding hands and taking in the beauty that surrounds us every day.

  11. says

    Love this article! For my family, it’s being to sensitive to each other’s boundaries. I don’t appreciate sarcasm so my family doesn’t use it for me. My family rocks!

  12. Linda says

    Spending time together is key, as is regular communication, whether that is by text, phone call or email. My children are grown but we see each other frequently and are in contact several times a week. We all like each other’s company!

  13. David Rapp says

    I think family is a verb, not a noun. I am connected by blood and marriage to many people, like everyone else. But I have added my own family members by choice, which does not make me popular with some of the “real” family. So how do you “family?”

    1. Show up when you not expected to. Make the extra call, send the extra note, make the extra call…all ways of showing up when you are not expected to.

    2. Tell people you love them, male or female, single or married, all colors, shapes and sizes.

    3. Make long term commitments.

    4. Under promise and over deliver.

  14. says

    Happy families are families that, above all, appreciate each other’s presence and then show love and appreciation to each other. From experience, I have learned when to let the small stuff slide because I value relationships more.

    On the other hand I have also learned that when a family member says they love you but acts otherwise in times of need…then the relationship becomes meaningless.

    I love my family and treasure the good bonds we have. Life is filled with stresses and family is a big support.

  15. says

    As a mom, wife, and teacher I really enjoyed this article. It is spot on, although I have to admit I do struggle sometimes with patience when my 8 and 4 year old are running around!

  16. says

    I love your point on forgiveness.

    One of the biggest things I have come to realize in life is that the act of giving and receiving are one thing.

    So when give forgiveness, you earn freedom and peace yourself =)

  17. Marisol says

    As I read your blog, although I agree with these tips, I wonder how these tips would apply to the mentally handicapped. You see, my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, anxiety and depression. He suffers from wild mood swings and altered states of mind constantly, and it is very challenging to be on the receiving end of his insults. Currently, we are not speaking, so I would like to hear your thoughts on how to prevent or deal with those wounds or how to treat people who are not capable of self control on a normal level, yet you love because they are, after all, your family. Thank you in advance.

  18. says

    Hi Marc,

    What an interesting choice for a blog post, I really enjoyed reading it.

    It feels as if you have a great handle on what it takes to create, and maintain, a happy family so well done.

    One area I would like to add to take this a step further is realizing that family doesn’t mean living together under one roof. In my experience all of the points you have made start to weaken once family members start to flee the nest, either willingly or not so.

    I left my family home when I was 18 and I didn’t keep hold of those strong family ties like I should have. Then I got married at a very young age decided that I had too much on my plate to managed to three different families (in-laws, my extended family and my own), and so condensed my relationships even further.

    Then after 15-years of marriage I got divorced. I moved back to my parents and guess what? All of these points started to strengthen with my parents and siblings who still lived there. Then my relationship with my son (who I was no longer living with) started to deteriorate.

    So I have had to learn to strengthen family bonds to maintain that happiness whilst not living together under the same roof. It’s not always easy either. To get people to interact is more difficult than you think. You need strength, determination and persistence.

    You need to work hard to show people the benefits of a happy family, because over time the distance makes them forget.


  19. says

    Beautiful! Every day everyone chooses to be a part of the family, blood family or not, it’s a choice. What a message to be sharing and living within a family. This is an awesome post. Thank you!
    Love and blessings

  20. says

    @Lee Davy, I know exactly what you mean, especially with kids who are no longer living with you. It’s like pulling teeth to get them to meet you half way in maintaining a strong bond. Not living in the same house makes it even harder. My son is so wrapped up in school and his girlfriend that I have to force conversation and togetherness, and it’s so awkward now. But as parents, it falls on us to keep trying, so hang in there. I’m told once they’re fully adults with jobs and families of their own, they actually appreciate having a relationship with their parents, so I keep holding out hope things will get easier. 😀

    @Larry Hochman I really LOVE this. I think the underlying message in what you’re saying is it’s all about tolerance and acceptance. When a family has that, there’s an unconditional bond and freedom in it. Well-said.

  21. says

    I agree. Family can be made up of many people, blood ties or not. Very often we have more profound and lasting relationships with friends we choose to come into our lives. Staying with them, loving them, strengthen those relationships until they become even stronger than with real brothers, who may live far away or have a family. Being with them, feeling this amazing love and affection is a wonderful thing. And is even more wonderful to be blessed to have these people in our life. Excellent post.

  22. Tobi says

    Yes, true family and friends stick together. They support each other, without fail. Thank you for these timeless reminders of what it means to be there for someone you love.

  23. says

    @Dev: I’m so happy our book and blog is continuing to help you. We really appreciate your support.

    @Melissa Webster: Thank you for the kudos.

    @Sheryl Kurland: That’s a great idea!

    @Sharon Whittaker: Interesting perspective. As long as the leader has the best interests of the family in mind, this makes a great deal of sense.

    @Michelle Angel: Excellent suggestions.

    @David Rapp: Thinking of “family” as a verb… I love it!

    @Kael: Yes, the act of giving and receiving are the same when the mind is fully present and focused on love and acceptance.

    @Lee Davy: Thank you for sharing your story and perspective. It is true, we must nurture our important relationships, even when those we love are far away. Luckily, technology makes this easy today. FaceTime, Skype, etc. Best of luck to you.

    @Larry Hochman: Excellent addition!

    @All: Thank you for sharing another round of priceless insight with us. A couple of you just gave me an idea for an upcoming post. Stand by for that. Have a great day!

  24. Jacob says

    Hi Marc,

    Thank you very much for the blog; it really helped me as a parent. I love the one: “patience and forgiveness can be bitter at first, but the seeds you plant now will bear sweet fruit in the end.”

    Keep it up! Well done.

  25. says

    “Tell your family what you need to tell them. Don’t shy away from important conversations because you feel awkward or uncomfortable. You never know when you might lose your opportunity.” –favorite part.

  26. Mamie says

    Beautiful essay, Marc. I can’t wait to share it. I have also found humor to be an important link in maintaining a healthy family life. Yesterday we ended up being snowed in and it was so delightful to have a roaring fire, a loving rescue dog and a lot of laughter echoing through our home.

  27. Scott Dastrup says

    One of the trip stones for many families is an inability to forgive the missteps we are all guilty of . . . stated differently, success in families does not come in perfect execution but in perfect accountability . . . and that means that we must forgive the missteps and allow family members to make amends in a spirit of accountability.

  28. Ananth says

    Thanks for writing this wonderful article. I have come to this article again and again and never failed to see a solution to my problems. I always see what I am doing wrong and shows me a path for correcting it.

  29. Jennifer says

    Marc. Thank you for this. Our family has been fractured for the last two years with our son going through a depression and disconnecting from us. We are trying to get back to being a family unit despite his resistance. I struggle with #4 concept. How can I love a family member for being unapologetically themselves when it is a destructive path they are on and can’t see how they are hurting themselves and their family?

  30. says

    Whenever I hear this term called ‘family’, it reminds me of Leo Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina! It says ‘Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy in there own way’. May be what this post suggests is the basic for a happy family. Thanks for sharing a beautiful post, it is complete in every sense…complied with love and happiness :)

  31. Susan Elena says

    Number 8 hit home, Quality Time for Each Other!

    I cannot tell you how many times I have hoped (and prayed) for quality time with my married siblings. When we actually get together, it is time, but not quality. Each gathering is stressful, and no real connections. It feels like we are just good actors.

    Yet, your list gives me great hope. It’s a great recipe to build the next generation, my children and their families, with love, support, presence and quality time. I have a great relationship with my soon daughter in law, who I refer to as my “new daughter”, as well as my son, her betrothed. Same is true with my other kids, and their families. Pretty lucky, aren’t I?

    We may not be able to fix the past, but I really will do everything I can to positively build my, our, future.

    Thanks again for your insights. Days like today, it feels like you are talking directly to me. :)

  32. Eric Awes says

    A very powerful and true article on families! Our family lives like this and where taught at a early age that it the family!!!

  33. Kristen says

    I think humor is very important. Life gets very rough sometimes, so laughing as a family is a very important trait to learn. We all need to laugh and learn not to take ourselves so seriously.

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