Of the five foundations of well-being—fit, flow, goal progress, altruism, and relationships—only one requires high quality interaction with other people. The other four we can do alone if we wish. We need interaction with others to benefit from relationships. And, the core set of relationships for all of us is what we know as our family. Whether our family is the traditional extended, mom-and-pop variety, or whether it is a commune, work team, gasthaus stammtisch, a pickup ball team we’ve played with for decades, a music performance group—each of us needs at least one group which we call our family.
I write this as I approach the gathering of 70+ members of my Howard clan in eastern North Carolina. One of our activities will be the completion of the Family History Survey. It was prepared by Marshall Duke (and others) at Emory University. Duke and his team found that higher scores on their “Do You Know” test are associated with higher self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety, a lower incidence of behavior problems, greater family cohesiveness, and better family functioning. Especially interesting is that high scoring children who experienced 9/11 showed greater resilience. The brief survey asks questions such as:
- Do you know the source of your name?
- Do you know the names of the schools that your mom/dad went to?
- Do you know how your parents met?
Now here’s the kicker: It is not the knowledge of one’s family per se that causes the benefits, but rather it is the connectedness of the individual to their family that tends to result in such knowledge. Family knowledge is a symptom, not a cause, of family cohesion.
The same relationship would hold for all forms of families. How much do you know about others at your stammtisch, in your car pool, on your ball team? Ask them:
- Where’s your favorite vacation spot? Why?
- What was your most memorable birthday? Describe it.
- How did you get started with this group?
Become adept at asking questions of your “family” with the intent of getting to know them better, for the purpose of identifying similarities and differences in values, tastes, habits, achievements, losses, hobbies, skills, interests, successes, failures, and the like. The more you know about your family, the firmer the foundation you are building. Plus, it feels good to be asked questions about who one is—usually! Friendly inquiry is a form of flattery.
Again, it is not knowledge, but intimacy-that-results-in-knowledge. To know about one’s family is the result of being curious, of listening, of showing an interest in the lives of others, of spending time together in a way that permits conversation—from walks on a beach or mountain path to quiet meals with the television off.
Don’t be someone who reads the obituary of a loved one and remarks, “Darn, I didn’t know that about them!” Do you know your family well enough to write an obituary for any one of them? If not, get crackin’! And start askin’!