This new study is great news for parents who don't have a lot of time or resources. 
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Sometimes, it can seem like the only way to spend enjoyable time together as a family is to do something new and different—like taking a far-away vacation. But a new study offers some good news for families who aren’t going anywhere for a while: Leisure time spent at home may actually be a more effective way to foster true, long-lasting happiness.

Yes, trying new experiences and visiting new places can be great for bonding with your kids. But when researchers at Baylor University surveyed more than 1,500 people about the types of family leisure they’d taken part in in the past year, they found that those who stayed home and participated in familiar activities more often were actually happier than those who'd ventured out and been more adventurous. 

“That may be because when the brain is focused on processing new information—such as taking part in an unfamiliar activity with unfamiliar people in a new location—less ‘brain power’ is available to focus on the family relationships,” lead author Karen K. Melton, Ph.D., assistant professor of child and family studies, said in a press release.

Previous research has shown that people are more likely to feel truly engaged—a concept known as “flow”—when they’re participating in structured activities bounded by rules, rather than unstructured free time. Engagement is one of the three elements of happiness, the authors wrote in their study, along with positive emotion and meaning.

All types of leisure activity have the potential to provide these elements and provide satisfaction within families, the authors wrote. But because time spent at home doing everyday activities can mimic this type of predictable, structured environment, they hypothesized that families would be more likely to achieve flow, or true engagement, during these seemingly mundane moments.

The study, which included survey responses from both parents and their 11- to 15-year-old kids, didn’t examine exactly what families were doing in their homes—only whether their activities were familiar or unfamiliar.

Melton noted that some experts recommend eating together as one of the best ways to bond as a family, and discourage passive activities like watching television. But families should question one-size-fits-all advice for happiness, she added.

“For some families, quality togetherness is having dinner together or playing games; for others, it may be hobbies, videos or TV, music,” Melton said. “At the end of the day, what matters is that we are social beings who crave a sense of belonging and connectivity.”

However, the authors did acknowledge a "discrepancy between best practices and reality.” In other words, not everyone will relate to the notion that staying home will bring them happiness and better relationships.

“Often when individuals get home they have no idea what to do there,” they wrote, adding that sometimes people don’t know how—or don’t try—to define family goals and foster environments that encourage engagement. “This may signify a need for leisure education regarding family leisure activities at home or education on intentional family practices,” they wrote.

Ultimately, says Molton, it may be true that the family that plays together stays together—but that when it comes to truly enjoying that play time, not all activities are created equal. 

“The best predictor of happiness for families may be spending quality time together in familiar activities inside the home,” she says. “And that’s great news for families who have little time or few resources.”


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