“All happy families are alike; Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina In 1994, John Cleese, television personality and comedian and Robin Skynner, a psychiatrist and family therapist, published their book, Life and How to Live It. It was a sequel to their best seller, Families and How [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

What makes a happy family?


“All happy families are alike; Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
In 1994, John Cleese, television personality and comedian and Robin Skynner, a psychiatrist and family therapist, published their book, Life and How to Live It. It was a sequel to their best seller, Families and How to Survive Them. In the first book they described dysfunctional families. The second is more interesting. In it they discuss the characteristics of happy families.

Ironically there is little research on what makes happy families. Most of the data comes from two research projects carried out in the US. Skynner and Cleese in their book summarise for us these characteristics. We need to look at these findings subject to two caveats. First, the studies were done on white middle class families and second, mental health is of interest to families only once they are physically safe, have sufficient to eat, a decent place to live, and a reasonable degree of comfort.

Happy families are positive in their attitude to people and life. It does not mean that they are unrealistically optimistic. They have a realistic attitude about people understanding that they can be both good and bad. But they will give the benefit of doubt and not withdraw if people are unfriendly. How do they compare to normal or average families? Average families are a bit mistrustful of others though this is not obvious at first. Relationships are viewed as a business arrangement with people expecting to get as much as they put in. Parents might tell their children how much they have sacrificed for them or ask for appreciation. Happy families do not keep a scorecard and have an abundance of good will they can freely give.

The second feature of happy families is love. But not in the usual sense of the word. Love can be attachment to another person in a dependent sort of way. This kind of clingy love means needing each other so badly they each cannot do without the other. Often this kind of relationship causes possessiveness and jealousy. The great love stories of literature like Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Paris and Helen, Lancelot and Guinevere and Anna Karenina (from where the quotation at the beginning was taken) were also tales of unhappiness and misery. The love in healthy families involves closeness as well as distance. Though there is affection there is also self-sufficiency and confidence so that each member can if necessary live apart and cope well and even enjoy themselves.

You might think that given such freedom infidelity would be common in such families. In fact the opposite is true. In such couples even though the freedom to be unfaithful is there they choose not to as they are so happy in their current relationship. Healthy couples want to preserve their relationship as they find it rich and fulfilling. In such a relationship if one partner dies the other is likely to recover faster. This is due to several factors. First such persons are more likely to have a wide circle of friends who can support them. Second, they grieve out of concern for the partner not for themselves. Paradoxically it is easier to recover from the loss of a healthy relationship than an unhappy one. Because you have had a happy time there are no regrets or bitterness.

The third characteristic of happy families is that the parents take a very clear position of authority. They are in charge and they take responsibility for their children and the children are required to do as they are told. If this sounds rather authoritarian and old-fashioned this characteristic is closely linked to the fourth where all the children are consulted fully before parents take decisions. The children are free and indeed encouraged to express their opinion. In such families, because they are consulted fully, children are more likely to accept the authority of parents without resentment.

The fifth characteristic of such healthy families is that they communicate in a direct, honest and open manner with each other. In such an environment children have no fear of expressing negative or embarrassing feelings. They are all considered a part of normal human emotions.

The sixth feature is that these families see the world not through rose tinted glasses but as it is. They do not have unrealistic dreams and fantasies about each other or other human beings.

The last feature of such super families is their ability to cope with change. Changes that would wreak havoc in a normal family are tolerated with equanimity or even enjoyed by such families. There are three factors that help us cope with change. First is rest. During times of stress we should take time off from responsibility. Second we have to adapt to a changed map of the world. Advice and information from people who have undergone similar adversity is helpful in such instances. The third is emotional support. We get this important quality from those around us who love us and have our welfare in their heart. This support comes from several sources. Families can get this from each other, from their friends in the community or from a value system outside of themselves that gives a sense of meaning to life. For some families it is their religion.

Perhaps by now, you the reader is feeling quite depressed that your family is not like the families I described. But do not worry; these are the characteristics of super families, numbering less than five percent of the population who manifest these qualities all the time. For the rest of us who are members of ordinary families (I hope you are not a member of the other minority of families who are truly horrible) if we can follow these characteristics at least some of the time the level of happiness would increase significantly.

As Tolstoy said, happy families have only a few ways to be truly happy whereas unhappy families find a myriad of ways to be really unhappy.


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