What are the most important ideas for greater happiness, better marriages, and effective parenting? What simple things can I do to enrich my relationships with myself, my spouse, and my children?
There are libraries of books on these subjects, but if I were asked to nominate just one or two ideas in each area, what would they be?
How do I find greater happiness?
Research recommends that at the end of every day we record several things that went well that day. You might record blessings or kindnesses received, small moments of joy or appreciation, accomplishments or forward progress, meaningful interactions with others, moments of enjoyment with family members, encounters with God, etc. The idea is to actively look for and capture the positives in every day, including the ordinary or challenging days. This attunement to blessings changes the quality of our lives. It pulls us away from negativity or busy schedules. It helps us to value each day we are given. It is also consistent with the counsel of the Lord and the brethren. From the Lord:
And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more. (D&C 78:19)
Wise counsel from President Eyring:
Tonight, and tomorrow night, you might pray and ponder, asking the questions: Did God send a message that was just for me? Did I see His hand in my life or the lives of my children? I will do that. And then I will find a way to preserve that memory for the day that I, and those that I love, will need to remember how much God loves us and how much we need Him. I testify that He loves us and blesses us, more than most of us have yet recognized. I know that is true, and it brings me joy to remember Him. (Henry B. Eyring, Remember, Remember, October 2007)
Recent research has confirmed so many of God’s timeless recommendations about well-being. It is hard to stop at only one recommendation. If I had the opportunity to give one more recommendation, it would be to make peace with our pasts.
In the course of learning the lessons of life, I have made stupid mistakes. And I am particularly good at dwelling on them. I torture myself regularly, asking myself how I could be so stupid.
The counsel of research is to find the positive, defining experiences of our pasts. The Lord’s counsel is even richer: to allow Him to transform our mistakes into wisdom. His hopeful message is that Jesus stands ready to repair any messes we will give to Him.
I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)
God has designed mortality to be educative. While it will often be messy, it will ultimately be enlarging—if we let Him preside.
What are the keys to a better marriage?
For decades, the conventional wisdom for improving marriages was to learn to communicate better. The assumption was that, if we could share our discontents in fair ways, we could remedy them. Thus, was invented “fair fighting” and a marriage enrichment industry focused on communication.
I don’t find any support for this idea in the scriptures. God seems to recommend an entirely different approach to building strong relationships.
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:34-35)
God does NOT recommend the fair communication of discontents but the nourishing of appreciation. John Gottman’s revolutionary research supports this approach. As he researched marriages that thrived versus those that didn’t, it was not communication ability that made the difference. He found that the single best predictor of relationship flourishing was five positives for each negative.
The human tendency is to fret about stains on our shirts and scuffs on the walls. When we do the same thing in our marriages—when we think, fret, and talk a lot about imperfections, we make ourselves and our partners miserable. In contrast, when we look for and dwell on the positives—kind acts, loving comments, sweet companionship, and abundant blessings—relationships thrive.
Sandra Murray, another marriage researcher, took the idea of relationship positivity even farther. She found that in strong relationships, partners saw qualities in their spouses that no one else saw—even family members and best friends. She called them positive illusions. I suspect that they are not illusions. I believe that when we love another person with all our hearts, we begin to see heaven’s view of our partners. We see not illusions but heavenly truths.
There are many other great discoveries about how to have a better marriage, but nothing matters more than surrendering our judging and correcting mindsets and replacing them with loving and appreciating mindsets.
How can I be a more effective parent?
There is a great irony in the common advice to parents. Most parenting books focus almost entirely on control, limits, and consequences. Yet the thing that matters most for child outcomes is the quality of our nurturing.
We become obsessed with control while our ultimate effectiveness depends on the consistency and quality of our love. The Lord would warn,
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all [parents], as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. (D&C 121:39)
God’s recommendation beautifully matches that of the good research on parenting.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile
Even God’s instructions on correction require careful precision, a specific mandate from the Holy Ghost, and a willingness to repair the relationship with abundant love.
But it is not enough to compliment our kids and be cheerful with them. That is not nurture. God’s definition of nurture is to be so devoted, so involved, and so loving “that [our children] may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44). That is a high standard!
Nurture means that we take walks with our children in ways that they know that we cherish them. Nurture means that we listen to our children and seek to understand their hearts. Nurture means that we, like the Lord, are far more interested in growth and goodness than in punishment.
Nurture is far more than niceness. It is a heartfelt covenant to be with and sustain our children along their journeys. It requires that we become like God.
As I write these ideas, I realize that there is a common theme. If we want healthy relationships with ourselves and with our family members, we should love God and His works in our lives, and we should love our spouses and children with all our hearts. This may seem blindingly obvious but think how often we are distracted from these truths in our day-to-day stresses and our constant impulses to correct each other.
So, love is the foundation. If you are interested in more ideas for greater happiness, better marriages, and more effective parenting, you might like to read Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. In that book, I dig deeper and provide sixty keys to well-being in vital family relationships.
Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships is available at most LDS booksellers and at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Discoveries-Relationships-Wallace-Goddard-PhD/dp/1599922924/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful additions to this article.