Sociologists, therapists and others have spent entire careers investigating the ins and outs of family dynamics, yet their findings often wind up being shared only with other experts.
Now, David Niven has compiled 100 of these findings and put them into simple terms that all can understand in his book, "100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families."
Niven tells The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler the reason having a happy family is so hard is because not much thought is given to how the family can function better because family members are usually too busy with daily responsibilities.
He says, "They get into patterns, default behaviors, they repeat again and again. The frustration can build from there."
But families are the foundation of people's lives, he notes. "Research shows family is as important to 20-year-olds as it is to 60-year-olds. It's at the foundation of our life. It's about five times as important as any other factor in producing happiness. This is a key issue for most Americans."
Here are a few secrets he shared on The Early Show:
Jealousy is natural - Says Niven, "People focus on jealousy, and they feel it's a personal failure when they focus on it. The research I use shows jealousy in children, younger than six months of age. It's automatic. It's before we can talk. This is the kind of thing we need to understand in order to not beat ourselves up when we are having those feelings as an adult. We have been having them longer than we can remember."
Syler's 7- and 5-year-olds are consumed with this sense of fairness now. Asked how she can combat that, Niven says, "You need to understand that you don't need to give them a perfect answer. You don't need to give them the Solomon wisdom answer. What you do need to do is be open so that they know they're being listened to. So they don't have to win every time, but they do have to feel you are listening. So, whether the complaints, even if you are not giving them a popular answer."
Time apart strengthens family – Niven explains, "Anybody on a family vacation knows. If you spend more time with family, as much as possible, you are about 9 percent less satisfied with family life because you are working so hard at family. You lose your individuality and build expectations higher and higher that family life will be perfect, nothing will be wrong. Smiles will be everywhere. The truth is, successful family life requires both the family element and you as an individual to have your own space and your own personal being."
Unhappy marriages hurt kids – "The research is clear," Niven says. "There's no point in putting on a show. There's no point in pretending to be happy because the truth is that children know that there's unhappiness."
He notes kids start to notice around four or five years of age. "The important thing to recognize is an unhappy marriage leading to a divorce is not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is an unhappy marriage leading to more of an unhappy marriage. The children experience that every day. There's no way to hide from that," he says.
Blended families are happy families - Says Niven, "There will be a transition period, usually six months to a year, where new relationships are forged, new responsibilities. There's always tension in that. After that period, stepfamilies or blended families can be every bit as happy as traditional families because the core of a good family is love, concern and respect, regardless of whether it's a traditional family or blended family.
Niven is a psychologist and social scientist, who teaches at Florida Atlantic University. This is his fifth book in the "Simple Secrets" series. Others include "100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships," "Happy People, Successful People, and Healthy People."
Read an excerpt from "100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families."
Be a Good Friend
Looked at from a distance, a family is infinitely complex. But looked at from the most basic level, a family is a series of personal relationships, and those relationships are like any other close, important relationship in your life. Treat your family members as you would treat a friend -- as if you have chosen to be in their company and wish them to choose to be in yours -- and you will have taken the most important, most fundamental step toward having a rewarding family life.
Looking back fifteen years ago, Briana remembers what it was like to not quite fit in. "I was brainy, and I didn't get in trouble," Briana says of her early teen years. "There were a lot of kids around me who didn't understand that, didn't respect that. I refused to do the things that might gain me more acceptance, but I was crushed by the feeling of being left out."
But Briana's mother was there to offer comfort and support. "I thought I would never survive those years, but my mother wisely made our home a sanctuary where I could talk about my troubles. She always listened carefully, no matter how trivial or monumental my worries. Her faith in me helped me gain confidence in my abilities today. I walk to my own beat with pride because of her."
Briana says what her mother offered mostly was friendship. "She's the ultimate friend. She's there for me. She's on my side. She let me be me, and embraced me for it."
While making other friends was easier after her middleschool trials, Briana never forgot the lesson in friendship from her mother. "My mom has made the world a better place for many people. I only hope to do the same in time."
Researchers studying those who enjoyed close family relationships and close friendships find that the key factors to both are the same, including a strong desire to be in the company of others and to value them. Moreover, they find that people can increase their receptivity to close relationships if they want to.
The foregoing is excerpted from "100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families" by David Niven. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022