in: Family, People, Podcast

• Last updated: September 27, 2021

Art of Manliness Podcast #82: The Secrets of Happy Families With Bruce Feiler

In this episode, I talk to author and New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler about his book The Secret of Happy FamiliesIf you enjoyed our series on creating a positive family culture, you’ll enjoy this podcast, as Bruce’s book served as an inspiration for the series. We discuss what the latest research says on what fathers can do to help create a strong and loving family. A must listen for dads and men who hope to be a dad one day.

Show Highlights:

  • What three traits happy and successful families share
  • How “agile development” can help you manage and run your family better
  • Why family mission statements work (even if they seem corny)
  • Why family dinner may not be all that important
  • What the GoRuck Challenge can teach you about becoming a stronger family
  • And much more!

Book cover, the secrets of happy families by Bruce Feiler.

I definitely recommend picking up a copy of Bruce’s book The Secrets of Happy Families (it’s on sale for $1.99 on Kindle today!). It’s an enjoyable read packed with actionable steps to help you start fathering with intentionality.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. So have you ever encountered families, I’m sure you have or they are just like – they’re just have idea, they just seem so happy and like they are prefect and you get in there because you are kind of suspicious really, there’s something going on maybe it’s just all of a sad and you get in there and you realize, no this people, this family like actually are they love each other. They are happy and they enjoyed being around each other. It’s not to say they don’t have trials and setbacks and they are perfect, but they are able to manage those trials and the stress and the setbacks that any family encountered. What is it about these families that make them so happy and so just together? Well, our guest today wanted to investigate question. His name is Bruce Feiler and he wrote a book called The Secrets of Happy Families. Today, we’re going to talk about what he uncovered writing the book and talking to families and talking to experts, what the research says what we as fathers can do to create a positive family culture and we’re going to discuss what we can learn from businesses that we can apply to our family. What we can learn from GoRuck challenges, we are a big fan of the GoRuck challenger here at the Art of Manliness. We are also going to discuss whether family dinner is really all that important in creating a positive together happy family. So, if you are a dad or you plan on becoming a dad one day, this episode is for you. I think you are going to get a lot out of it. So, let’s do this. Bruce Feiler, welcome to the show.

Bruce Feiler: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Brett McKay: So, what inspired you to research and write a book about what makes a happy family.

Bruce Feiler: Well, my wife, how is that for manly like I’m going to begin by calling my wife. My wife insists that I always thought we have had. I wrote about happy families not because I had one but because I wanted one and that’s true, I think that what happened for me it was what happened for many people was that I felt sort of lost and confused and overwhelmed specifically in our case we had gotten through what I call the years of defense, right those early years when it was, well, you are just reacting to what’s happening, right so with diapers and sippy cups and potty training and napping and snacking and all these things and you get through that and your kids are sort of a certain age and then you do have this sort of a window of time where you can develop a family culture. But while there’s so much focus on the young ears and even to just understand there’s a lot focused on the teenager. There is actually not a lot focused on that sort of middle period and really it turns out to go much longer than that. So, I was interested in this idea of how you make sure that your family works and your kids are even attached to the idea of family. Speaking of my wife, she hates when I talk about Neanderthals. Let me just talk about Neanderthals that’s like human beings have something that no other species on Earth has, which is this very large window of time. After kids are weaned but before they can reproduce. Every other species on Earth, literally, once they stop weaning, they can have children of their own. Humans don’t. We have this extra decade in there and the reason just because we are social. Our brains have to grow and we have to learn the sort of get along with other people and so that’s the window. I sort of think of it as sort of from potty training to the prom, right, from the first step to the first kiss, where you have this chance to make sure you are family and I have no clue really about how to do that and so I wanted to go and find out.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, when you talk about the defensive stage, I’m right in the middle of that right now.

Bruce Feiler: It would – this too shall pass.

Brett McKay: This too shall pass. It’s good to know. Okay. Well, Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Is that true? Did you find some common characteristics that happy families have?

Bruce Feiler: Well, when I first encountered that actually I was a teenager when I first read that and my reaction and this is a technical word was that it was idiotic. Of course all happy families are not alike, right? Some are big, some are small, some are loud, some are quiet. But I had to say because of some of the way the world works now, we live in this age where there is time to research and thinking and sort of ways of looking at to a large scale pattern. I think that there is a lot of truth to that, but there are certain things we know now about how they handle disciplines or difficult conversations, or how or any of the things that parents face, even the role of dad. So, I think a really sort of under discussed question is possible now to draw some conclusions. And I should say here when I set out doing this I sort of looking for ways to make my own family work better. I insisted, I mean I screamed at like as loud as I could. I’m going to take everything that I know and cram it into one of those lists of the seven things, the six or five or ten things you know on how to make your family happier. I don’t know about you and like I guess on the web we do this a lot now but I can’t stand those lists. I usually disagree with number seven and I forget number five and I think my kids will never go to college. But it turned out and I sort of have been doing this for years now and writing this column in the New York Times for five years now and happy families and meeting people in other country and talking et cetera. I actually do think that there are certain patterns that I uncovered and so I ultimately did create what I kind of call my not-a-list list that about the things that high functioning families have. I’m wagging my finger and saying you must, but these are sort of certain things that do come up and over though.

Brett McKay: Okay, we’ll just talk about a few of those things that come up over and over again, some of the things you have found that research has shown that helps a family be happy and essentially a lot of these things come from like places you wouldn’t think they would come like the world of business. So, that one thing I thought which was just fascinating was this idea of applying agile development to your family. Can you explain just for listeners who aren’t familiar with agile development is and then how you can apply that to your family organization.

Bruce Feiler: Well, so let’s start with a list. So, what is the first thing that high functioning families have in common, they adapt all the time. Now, this is completely counter to how I was and I think dads are particularly susceptible to this. So, when I became a father it was like okay I’m going to set a few rules and I’m going to have hard principles and we are going to stick to that and I’m going have to be sort of tough and that’s what we’re going to do. Well, guess what, it doesn’t work out that way. Right things are changing all the time. One of my favorite lines is from a friend of mine who is a dad, who has at one point had four kids under six, the first one is now going to college, if this goes back and I just love what he said, with kids everything is a phase, even the good part. So, just when you are used to diapers then they learn to potty train, and just when you are used to potty train then they go to school, just when you got the school routine, then they had homework, and just when you got that done, then they had sports, and then had the internet and then they had cellphones, and then they had screens and videogames and sort of you cause somebody having to adapt and of course now, we have these other big changes in the family. So, you have got three quarters of moms are working outside the home and now dads are much more involved in parenting than they ever were before. Theirs is just the idea that two men will be having this conversation about parenting really unthinkable 25 years ago and yet it’s sort of the standard way it works now.

So, there are all these changes that are going on. So, how do you manage that change, because what you are there is a great line, you run this great website and then you just sound a bit out loud here on your podcast. I just love what you guys are doing and you visually and the questions you are asking, I’m a big fan. I’m really happy to be here, but one of the things they say in the internet space is if you are doing the same thing today that you are doing six months ago you are doing the wrong thing. So you want to be able to change this week, grandma’s coming next week mom has a business trip, the next week junior has a big sports day, he has got to get ready and then the following week someone’s has got a big test. You need to be able to be adaptable. But if you adapt every single day your head will explode. Okay. So, how do you solve that problem? Okay, this is what agile comes at.

So, agile is an idea began in Japan 25 years ago, sort of it came to the US and now it’s really sort of sweeping through businesses. So GE, to Google, to TED, lot’s of people are doing this and the core idea is that the way things used to work in business, and by the way and in the government and in military, and on sports teams was the leader in charge would issue orders and they would trickle down to everybody below. Okay, that process is called the waterfall. We all know it, nothing has been more waterfall than the family right, but dads, you know 100 years ago, dads owned mom and owned the children, literally that’s how it was. Now, we know moms are involved and increasingly our kids have a say. That didn’t work in business and it basically failed and now things are done very differently even the military, sports, we know it just simply works differently. But families are coming to last to catch on with this and a lot of families had begun to change and that’s really what the secrets of happy families really taps into. Here’s this change. So with a couple of principles that are really work in the family; one is you need to talking all the time right, so one of the things in agile is you want to have an information radiators is what the agile term for which is a big display in an office, it says who is doing what.

When I visited a family, it’s on my book is a great story about in Idaho and the mom would come down in the morning and their four kids would come down, make themselves breakfast; check their list of things they have to do. Put the dishes in the dishwashers, check the list again, feed the cat or make themselves lunch, check the list again, take their belongings and go out to the bus. It was the most amazing, astonishing family dynamic I had ever seen and when I insisted, this would never work in my house. They told me I was wrong and sure enough and we put a morning list in our house, we’ve been doing it now for I think seven years. It cut down on parental screaming in half like in a week because you’re giving your kids sort of more responsibility. By the way, a lot of people do these lists but then they check it off. Again, you want your kids to check it off. You want your kids to take more responsibility for their own behavior, because as a parent you can force your kids around and maybe that will work once or twice or maybe for six months. In the long run it’s not going to work. You want your kid when your kid is 15 and deciding whether to get in the car with a drunk driver or have unprotected sex or try drugs, or whatever. You want them have to experience making decisions and you want to start that when they are young and mistakes were a lot lower.

But really the key is this family meeting. We do a family meeting now, we do it every Sunday night. We ask three questions that come directly from this world of agile. What works well in our family this week, what didn’t work well in our family this week and what can we work on in the week ahead and you have these conversations. Everybody is putting ideas out and then you basically pick a couple of things you are going to work on and you let your kids join the conversation about sort of setting their own rewards and punishments. So, again it’s not coming from you, but it’s more coming from them, which is ultimately what you want because now we know that built up their brain and it gives them practice making the decisions they are going to need later on.

Brett McKay: That’s fantastic and actually we’ve implemented those three questions into our weekly family meeting as well. But with even with our 4-year old and he is only 4 but he is taking to it, like he is getting an input and then we have is like this little list that he does in the morning that he is supposed to do and he loves, like he eats it up like I don’t know. It’s crazy.

Bruce Feiler: So, how old are you kids now, one of them is 4?

Brett McKay: Yeah one of them is 4 and the other one is 1.

Bruce Feiler: Well, what’s great is it works when you started when they are young, okay, the advantage of starting when they are young is they’ll just all know this is how it works in our family, right, we’re going to talk about what it means to be part of the family, okay. When they’re young you are still making most of the decisions. The older they get, that’s what ironically even when they get to be teenagers, which is in some ways when they’re going to be the most resistant it’s actually when you needed the most because then you have less control over the schedules, some way they’re getting input. Oh, my gosh, what tends to happen is people telling me oh, I’ll never get my 12-year old to come to a meeting like this. That’s okay. Here’s what is going to happen. It’s going to be first, it’s going to be 10:30, you are going to be flossing your teeth, your partner your spouse is going to be checking with grandma about who is getting to the eye doctor tomorrow, you are going to be trying to balance your check book and sort of figure out that you have enough milk to get through the weekend and then your teenager is going to come to you and say oh, by the way I got to be at Johnny’s house or Susie’s house after my curfew on Saturday, I need $20, can you take me. And if you say and they are going to come to you at the most vulnerable time and the kids are amazing about this and you are going to give them the 20 bucks and say sure because you got to finish flossing your teeth and balancing your check book. But if you say to them, well, actually why don’t we do at the family meeting on Saturday morning or Friday night or Sunday night or whenever it is, they are going to be the first person there and that’s the point, you just cannot be changing what you do at all times because you cannot function. You have to say this is how we do it as a family, we need total buy in, let’s all sit down and when we are calmer and we’ll try to figure out what’s going to go on the week ahead.

Brett McKay: Very good. All right so another sort of idea you took from the world of business is the idea of a family mission statement. And we’ve written about family mission statement on the side and when we did you always got this push back that like oh, that’s too corporate, and like you can’t do that with your family. What’s your response to folks who say you shouldn’t have a family mission statement because it’s too corporate?

Bruce Feiler: Well, first of all I agree, yeah, when I first heard of idea I was like well, not only is that corporate it also sounds cold and frankly corny. I’m corny and I know enough about what you guys to do you. So, I don’t mind being corny, I used to do circus ground, I’m all for corny. I like country music and corny and I write about that kind of stuff. So, here’s the thing that somebody asked me that caught me up for and I changed my mind. Can and I would say to any person who asked this question. Can you tell me, can your kids tell me what values are most important for you as a parent? If I went to your kids and I say, what is the most important thing to your family, what would your kid say? Could they say what’s important to you? I mean values we all talk about teaching values, right, the 24×7 world. Do we want our kids to learn our values from television or from god forbid from Facebook or the internet or movies. We want to teach our kids values have you had a conversation with your kids about values or are you expecting them to somehow divine it or just sort of by osmosis to kind of just figure it out.

So, here’s one of my main – I have to say this was sort of one of my main things. If you take on one thing from this conversation, it’s sort of this and that is, we all know today that we have to work on our jobs if we want to get better at that. We know we have to work on our hobbies if we want to get better at those. Our tennis game is not going to get better or garden is not going to get greener or our miles might get faster or whatever it is if we do not work at it. We also know we have to work on our bodies, it means gosh no, it’s in the man space, right, sort of taking care of your body so much bigger now than that was even 15 years ago.

We know we even have to work on our relationships and if we don’t know the other person in the relationship tell us all in their own time, but why is that we keep putting our family to the back of that line because we think our families are going to work or going to just function without doing anything about it. Well, guess what, what we know now is if you take small steps, you can make your family happier and you can make everybody in your family happier and so this is a great thing. If my wife were here she would say of all of the hundreds of things that we tried in the last five years and we still try them, this has been one of the top three things. We set everybody down we actually had, we made our kids, everyone have a special occasion on the Saturday night. Look, we want a pajama party, everyone, mom and dad to get in pajamas, I always flipped the pajamas frankly but I got these stipe pajamas in the bottom my drawer, my kids gave me one. We made popcorn because my kids had never like jiffy pop because they thought popcorn came for a movie theatre. So we made popcorn. My wife brought a food chart home from work because I work at home and don’t have food chart and we had this incredible conversation.

So we started with this list of values as you know I put it in The Secrets of Happy Families. But basically we just had a series of question. Hey kids, what do you like about our family? When you go to school what do you miss? When you bring a friend over, what are you most proud when you come to our house? And we just start talking about it and we ended up with a list. There’s not many words, in our case it was sort of a series of things that we got mom and dad have or the kids have and my wife has a liner, I don’t like dilemmas, I like solutions. That’s on the list. We are like the traveller, so one of our lists was we are travellers not tourist and we made the list. We typed it up, we put it in the hangers in the dining room.

Do we worship it every morning? Do we sit there and burn candles and doing a dance kumbaya… hell no, but it’s there and when we got a call from one of the teachers that my kids got into – one of my daughters got into a spat at school and we’re like we don’t know what to do, we went to school, we got a little talking to and we thought well what do we have to do. I mean this is again one of my kind of messages to parents especially to dad is we don’t have to know all the answers and guess what you anchored in all of the answers and for man, we want to be a Mr. Fix It. We want to be the problem solver. So, we could certainly call my daughter in my office with my wife, my wife runs an organization in 25 countries. She got 250 people working for her. She is a strong woman. She was very strict… like she didn’t know what to do, she doesn’t really like discipline and so finally this flip chart was still on the wall at my office and she says to one of my daughters so anything up there seem to apply and my daughter looks down and she says we bring people together kind of like that right and boom we had a way into the conversation. So, the point is that we know from positive psychology, we know from all this research you cannot get better without a plan. You can’t run a marathon without a plan or try F1. You can’t start a business without a plan. You can’t bake a cake without a recipe. This is your best possible fault at saying this is the family we want to be. You are not going be that most of the times something we are not but articulating it can be an extremely powerful and long lasting thing.

Brett McKay: I love the idea of investing in your family like you would your business or yourself or for your health or whatever, that’s….

Bruce Feiler: We know this some siblings fight a lot, right, seven or eight times an hour for kids 6 to 10, why do they do that. The research is very clear. Because they take one another for granted, because they know they have no choice and that’s sort of it. We sort of think I got to deal with my boss. I got to deal with my mother. I got to deal with my neighbor. I got to deal with other people, my fancy for bowling whatever it is and you just keep putting your family to the end of a list and yet we know that the most important thing in our happiness is our relationships to other people and if families have relationship that matters most and we keep spending the least amount of time working on it.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you hit this point because I thought it was great. Because you read anything like magazine article or website, their blog post and they always say that if you want a strong family you have to eat family dinner together. The secret of that is if you do that your kids are going to like not do drugs, they are going to be the straightest students and everything is going to be amazing. But your research and what you found is a little more nuance than that, what role does family dinner or family meals play in creating a happy family?

Bruce Feiler: So, nothing has been more studied in family dinner. Tens of thousands had been videotaped, audio taped, logged, analyzed but you know not much has been counted and parsed and this is what we know. There’s only 10 minutes of productivity conversation in any meal time. The rest is taken up with take your eating off the table and pass the ketchup. Now, that has value and that’s important. But the main message here is that the 10 minutes that the family time is what’s important. If you can do it at a meal time fantastic, congratulations, give yourself a pat on the back, go sit down, have family meals. But it doesn’t work in many of our schedules. Particularly when kids are young, when my kids were young, we used to have them they need to have to go to bed at 7:00 or 7:30 and my wife didn’t even get home till 6:30. So, they had to be fed and bed – or it didn’t work. So, it just simply doesn’t work. Americans ranked 33 out of 35 countries on the UN studies of families that do this, okay. A third of us simply are not doing. You don’t have to kill yourself and confine yourself to do if you can. The point is find time to have the family time. I interviewed a chef, he works at night. He is never home at dinner. So, we said you know what family breakfast is going to be my thing. You can have a family snack at 8:30 if your kids are older after they come home from sports practice. Even one meal a week can be effective. The point is you can do as a carpool; you can do it around a game. It’s the family time and the connection that matters where you do it’s not the most important thing.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, we’re big fans of the GoRuck challenge around here. I’ve done three of them.

Bruce Feiler: Really.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ve done giveaways with them and we love them and you have a chapter about how GoRuck challenges can help create a happy family. How can GoRuck challenges create a happy family?

Bruce Feiler: So let’s go back to my non-list list. Number one is adapt all the time, and we talked a little bit about that. Number two is talk a lot, okay, and so talk a lot, not just typical conversations. As you know in The Secrets of Happy Families I have about two chapters on this. But talk about what it means to be part of a family. Okay, so talk about your family mission statement, talk about your family history, talk at meal time or carpool time or whatever it is. The third element, so it’s adapt, adapt all the time, talk a lot, go out and play. If you focus on the positive memories, it will make all those difficult times much easier to bear. So, I went looking for how can we make family reunions and family activities and rejoin family time especially in multiple generations work and so the military have a lot of ideas there and that’s what brought me took GoRuck. So, with GoRuck what we don’t know is it’s a sort of extreme sport class, it’s sort of group bonding experience. Many of them take place overnight and you take whatever it is 15 to 30 people and you put them through an intense bonding experience and you tag them very physically. The one I did, I did in New York. It was the night before 9/11. It was basically from 8:00 pm the night before ending at ground zero on the morning of 9/11. So, we would have this people that will cross the broken bridge and swimming and doing pushups in the river.

But GoRuck, obviously there is Tough Mudder there’s any number of the sort of other extreme elements out there, you don’t have to do that. What I like is the idea of working together. And I think that, for example, the way we do this in our family is we have two different families right, there is my wife’s family and we get together with them. They like games and sports. So, we do this sort of extreme sports thing with the kids, that’s sort of like they may… we call it the cape house challenge it’s sort of a little color war or Olympics style thing where the kids compete on teams and it gets people from different families working together. My family is a little bit different actually, they are just sort of a more art culture there, so we actually do a play or we should be doing movie where we get together and bring again it gets the cousins together, it gets the aunts and uncles from different generations, it gets the grandparents involved. What I think that GoRuck offers all of these things to offer is the GoRuck workout that I like is logs… I don’t know if you have logs in yours but the idea that half way through you find a big obstacle might be a TV, might be a bed, might be a log and then the entire group, you can’t move the log from A to point L or whatever they make that they get for 90 minutes unless you swap come up with a plan, come up with a way of working together. You need a log, you need a common enemy that will bond people together and you do that on your family vacation, you’ll make the connections that you’re lacking during the rest of the year and we’ll get people over from fighting around. You don’t like breakfast early, and you like breakfast late, and you will have the wet towels in the bathroom. This kind of an extreme thing will create the positive memories that can last here for a long time.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. So, you have mentioned three things on your list, there are six right. So, there’s talk all the time.

Bruce Feiler: No, there is only three.

Brett McKay: There’s only three, okay.

Bruce Feiler: That’s, but there’s three big ones.

Brett McKay: Those are the three thing so, it’s adapt.

Bruce Feiler: Adapt all the time.

Brett McKay: Talk, talk a lot and get out and play.

Bruce Feiler: Yeah, get out and play. Go out and play.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Bruce, our time is running up and this has been a fantastic conversation. Where can people go to find out more about your work?

Bruce Feiler: So, if you go to that’s F-E-I-L-ER, you will see there’s a lots of stuff there. There is a little toolkit. There’s links for videos. As you know, I gave a TED talk on how to make your family happier that is just about to reach a million views. I talk a lot around the country, I write the New York Times column, so that’s or my Facebook page which is or you can follow me on Twitter @BruceFeiler. I’m out there sort of talking about these things and you know I specially talk about dads a lot because I think that’s sort of new dimension to this whole thing, but you know reach out, let’s keep the conversation going.

Brett McKay: Awesome. And if you are a dad or planning on being a dad I definitely recommend picking up The Secrets of Happy Families. It’s fantastic. You are great, there’s like some awesome concrete takeaways you can apply right away. So go out and pick it up. Thank you very much, Bruce.

Bruce Feiler: My pleasure.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Bruce Feiler. Bruce is the author of the book The Secrets of Happy Families and you can find that on and I recommend if you are a dad go get this book. It’s fantastic. I have taken a lot from that book and applied it in my own family. And you could find out more information about Bruce’s work at

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at and if enjoy this podcast and you feel like you got something out of it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d go and give us a review, doesn’t matter what it’s, you can just review on iTunes, Twitter or whatever else you use to listen to the podcast. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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