Most people carry an imaginary ideal of the perfect happy family around with them and literature is strewn with references, for example, consider playwright George Bernard Shaw’s powerful quote: “A happy family is but an earlier heaven“ and Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening lines to his novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I agree with George Bernard Shaw for who could argue that having a strong family base in which you feel a sense of belonging, can be emotionally congruent and in which your own unique identity is affirmed and supported, is anything but heavenly? I agree with Tolstoy only as far as what he writes about unhappy families, i.e., that they are infinitely varied and complex but I also think the same is true of happy families.
The psychotherapist Virginia Satir (1916 -1988), viewed by many as a pioneer of early family therapy, considered that functional and healthy families were characterised by high levels of self worth, specific, clear and honest communication, flexible and humane rules and codes of behaviour and openness and optimism about their role and place in wider society. I suspect that families who manage all this are probably happy for more of the time than families who do not.
In everyday talk happiness is often referred to as a kind of fixed and unchanging state of being and yet we all know that our emotional and mental states change all the time. If you were to plot your own subjective happiness levels as a line graph for even a couple of hours it is likely that there would be peaks and troughs rather than a straight line. How much more complicated such a line graph would be for a whole family?
Dictionaries define happiness as relating to mental or emotional states that feature positive and enjoyable emotions that can range from relatively mild enjoyment and contentment to intense joy or ecstasy and also related to or are reflective of life satisfaction and general wellbeing. Since the 1960’s research on happiness has increased and is conducted by a wide range of scientific disciplines, e.g., gerontology, social psychology, positive psychology, clinical and medical research and happiness economics. Governments and global organisations have drawn upon this research and formulated national indexes of happiness relating to demographic characteristics such as place of abode, age, education and income. One problem with all this measuring and defining of happiness is that it can be reduced to such simplistic and shallow claims that people are left feeling that they are somehow lacking or falling short.
So returning to the subject of happy families, I am reminded of the card game of that name, which was very popular when I was a child. Happy Families is a traditional British card game created in 1851 by John Jaques Jnr who was also credited with making Tiddly Winks, Ludo and Snakes and Ladders popular. It consists of a pack of illustrated cards containing fictional families of mother, father, son and daughter. Each family is distinguished by occupation types and similarities of appearance. The object of the game is to collect as many complete family sets as possible. Every social stereotype you can think of is fulfilled. No single parents, different sexual identities and relationships, mixed race or unemployed people inhabit the world of Happy Families. In today’s world we cannot make assumptions or generalisations about the nature of families and I would argue, we cannot do so with happiness either.