On a recent episode of How To!, Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, shared how being housebound for a year, recovering from cancer, helped him rethink his family’s dynamics. Looking to agile businesses , Bruce came up with a game plan for helping families work better—strategies that all of us can use. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: When you first had to be at home, what was that like?
Bruce Feiler: Even as I left the house this morning, my wife reminded me, “You wrote about happy families, not because we had one, but because we wanted one.” We found ourselves in a situation that everybody finds themselves in, in which the old rules no longer apply and the new rules have not been written.
We had what we thought at that time was a unique set of circumstances. I work at home. My wife leaves the house everyday and works as a business executive. We have identical twins. We were always reacting to an incredible kind of crush of events, circumstances, chaos that we thought was unique to our situation. The reality is every family in their own way is responding to a crush of changing gender roles, children, technology, and expectations that we bring to our relationships and our families.
High-functioning families adapt all the time. There’s a line from the start-up internet Silicon Valley culture that I think applies to families—“If you’re doing the same thing you did six months ago, you’re doing the wrong thing.”
Life is just constantly chaotic.
And you need a way to adapt to the fact that it’s changing all the time. There simply is no kind of open conversation about how to make it work, about the essence of being a family—which is how we’re going to live together in a way that doesn’t kill us and, in fact, makes us healthier and stronger and happier.
People used to make decisions in business by a process called the waterfall. The waterfall system was people at the top made decisions and the decisions trickled down to the people below. Very few things are done that way in the world today.
One of the biggest things that I have found is that we have to get the rest of the family into the conversation about how we’re functioning as a family. So we adopted a system in my family called a family meeting from the agile way of running businesses. So once a week we’re gonna sit down and have a family meeting—20 minutes, half an hour. We’re going to ask three questions: What’s working well in our family this week? What’s not working well? What are we going to focus on this week?
Family meetings might feel formal and strange, at least at first, but it works. That’s why companies have meetings. So why not families? The process of setting a time to sit down, check in with each other, and make sure we all feel appreciated not only helps distribute responsibility, but also helps reinforce your shared values.
Maybe in this conversation you’re gonna say, “I’m upset that the bathroom is messy.” And rather than saying, “It’s my job to fix it,” you realize it’s all of our job. We’re now having a conversation where we’re gonna talk about how we can all together make the home work better.
Bruce’s next tip also comes from his experience in business management: Write out a family mission statement.
Anybody who has been in an organization has done this. But for the organization that is most central to our happiness—our families—we don’t do it. I would actually advocate going out, sitting down, and asking a series of questions. What do I like best about my family? When people come to visit, what am I most proud of? When I’m not here, what do I miss the most? If we were doing this in my breakfast room kitchen area, it’s literally on the wall on a whiteboard.
You’re putting it up on the wall?
We originally did it on a flip chart. It got things like “We bring people together. We help others to fly. We’re travelers, not tourists.” And a few weeks after we did this, we got a call from the principal’s office that one of my daughters, who was in first grade, got into a fight with a kid. So my daughter came home and my wife—who runs an organization in 40 countries around the world—had no idea what to do. The flip chart was on the wall. And so I said to my six-year-old, “Anything up there that seems to apply?” She looked down and there was one like “we help others to fly.” That allowed us to have a conversation.
If you look at modern psychology, you have to identify your best possible self. You have to say, “This is what I want to be.” To make personal goals is the same thing with our family and we don’t do it. I want to be clear. We don’t sit around every morning and dance “Kumbaya.” Chaos reigns. But when it reigns, we have a reminder of what’s most important to us.
How do we use that family mission statement in a positive way instead of saying, by the way, you’ve just violated the mission statement?
You have to remember there are certain aspects of being in this situation that I’m in—a happy marriage with compromises as any marriage is going to have—that I’m not going to be able to change. And as we all know, having a relationship based on hope is not having a relationship.
I was in high school when I first read Anna Karenina and encountered the most famous opening line in world literature. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There is no universal happiness. A house can be Marie Kondo-ed and family meeting-ed and rearranged forever and ultimately it’s not going to give you or any other people who live in this place what they’re looking for. We’re looking for a commitment that as long as we’re going to be together, we have to be committed to working it out. You can take small steps. You can have conversations. You can get frustrated. Come back and try again. You can have small wins. And in the process, you can make yourself happier and you can make everybody in the family happier.
To hear Bruce give our listener a home makeover, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.