This holiday season, many of us gathered with our families, some for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While time with loved ones can be heartwarming, family dynamics can also be complex and challenging. We offer insights around some of these relationship challenges and skills for building stronger relationships in our Science of Happiness course, a free, eight-week online course that explores the roots of a happy, meaningful life.

When we asked students in the conclusion of the course how the journey had impacted them, they shared everything from small habit changes to big life transitions. But one of the themes that kept coming up was how the course enhanced their sense of connection with family.

Family is key to well-being

In an opening discussion in the course, we asked students all around the world what makes them happy. The overwhelming response revealed how important family is for happiness.

Annette, a new student in the course, summarized it this way:

“The things that make me happy are spending time with my family and my dog, seeing my children grow and prosper in adulthood, being able to be independent despite physical limitations.”

Many students identified family relationships as their main focus for improvement through the course. They described many difficulties in these intimate relationships, as well: Juggling work and home life can be challenging, and when we are stressed, we often project our negative emotions on to our loved ones.

For example, Yainak, a student who recently completed the course, reflected:

“When I was terribly busy raising my children and I didn’t have the time to be considerate of others, it was difficult for me to be grateful to others, and I would only complain, wondering why I was the only one having a hard time. I couldn’t even be generous to my husband, who was the closest to me. At that time, when I got together with other housewives, the main topic of conversation was complaining about our husbands.”

Research suggests that family relationships can help us cope with stress, form healthier habits, and enhance self-esteem, leading to higher well-being. So how do we strengthen our family relationships?

Skills for happier family relationships

Each of the course’s eight weeks focuses on a specific theme, and many of these are very relevant to our family relationships.

Forgiveness. Conflict is inevitable, especially in close relationships, and our forgiveness lessons in the course center on forming genuine apologies, as well as activating compassion as we consider forgiving others.

For example, students learn the process of forgiveness based on research by Fred Luskin. Once you acknowledge your feelings and make a commitment to forgive, the steps also include soothing yourself when you feel upset and focusing on your positive goals for the future rather than past hurts.

Student Anna recalls many “family members’ relationships crushed due to unwillingness to forgive,” and emphasizes that “with family members who you care about, it’s OK to be the first one to apologize to the other for the situation you are in without blaming one or the other.” Many students agreed with this observation, acknowledging how the simple action of apologizing first can initially be uncomfortable and difficult—but ultimately worthwhile.

Gratitude. One practice, the Gratitude Letter, was particularly popular in the course. Students wrote letters expressing thanks to people they hadn’t properly thanked, and delivered them in person if possible, creating the space for heartfelt conversation.