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What's the secret of happy families? The New York Times' Bruce Feiler looks at the research.

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"All happy families are alike," wrote the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, "but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way." Bruce Feiler, columnist for the New York Times and author of "The Secrets of Happy Families," would probably agree. For the past few years, Feiler has been studying what, exactly, makes happy families tick. In this episode of Innovation Hub, Feiler shares with us the science behind familial bliss, and local Massachusetts families chime in about how they stay close.

One of the biggest keys to success for happy families is that they talk, says Feiler, and not just about the light and fluffy stuff. Though parents often tend to sweep dark moments in family history under the rug, Feiler says it's actually these stories - like Uncle Joey's arrest or grandpa's bankruptcy - that can be most formative for kids.  In the summer of 2001, psychologist and family ritual expert Marshall Duke found that, in the aftermath of 9/11, children who were well-versed in their family's history were better able to cope and recover from trauma.  This was especially true when family histories encompassed both successes and failures. “Kids who understand that they’re part of an oscillating family narrative have this greater belief that that’s what expected in life: a series of ups and downs,” Feiler says.  

Perhaps nothing in the world of happy families has been more closely studied than the family dinner.  In this department, America is seriously lagging, ranking 33rd out of 35 countries in the world when it comes to sharing meals together. But how do you squeeze in family dinners between dropping off Sarah at softball and John at guitar lessons? Not to fear, says Feiler: it's not the meal itself but the together time that counts. Studies have shown that there are usually only ten minutes of productive conversation in a family meal, and those ten minutes don't necessarily have to be at the dinner table. "Take that ten minutes and move it to family breakfast. Have a bedtime snack at 8:30.  Even one meal on the weekends can be effective," he says.

As for the topic of conversation during dinnertime, Feiler says that it's just as important to stay honest during meals as it is when sharing family history. When talking about your day, don't gloss over the bad stuff. Being truthful and recognizing that there are highs and lows in life is a lesson in itself. "If you bring your children into that part of your life – the struggles – you’ll prepare them for when they’re not in front of you," Feiler says. 

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